Definitions Matter! What is a Walkable Neighbourhood Anyway?

On Halloween night I informed my kids that they were to eat only 3 candies a day. My 8 year old looked down at her loot. She'd been given candy bars, suckers, chips and granola bars. She asked me, "what is the definition of candy?". Smart kid. Should be a lawyer when she grows up. But seriously, definitions matter. There has been a lot of talk about 15 minute walkable neighbourhoods in Ottawa but no clear definition of terms. And definitions really do matter.

It's time for Ottawa to adopt the following definition of a walkable neighbourhood: a neighbourhood in which residents can conveniently & safely walk year-round to roughly 80% of their weekly destinations along routes that are enjoyable, safe, and with reliable & frequent transit.

"Walkable neighbourhoods come at some cost to the City, but if we are clear about our definition, walkable neighbourhoods would bring net savings, and on a large scale!"

It's important for us to be clear about just how walkable a 'walkable neighbourhood' needs to be to make the cut. And it's important in our snowy capital to be clear about which seasons we expect to walk in. Cause let's face it, lots of our streets are walkable in the summer but a nightmare in the winter.

And it's really important to be clear about the enjoyment aspect of walkability. In my neighbourhood I can walk to the grocery store, but I have to brave the 'Pee Pee Stair' to get there. The name speaks for itself. It's no wonder that so many of my neighbours drive to get groceries.


So why does Walkable Ottawa's definition for walkable neighbourhoods matter? Because we believe that the reason for transitioning to walkable neighbourhoods is so that residents will take up walking lifestyles. And we all know that Ottawa's neighbourhoods and households will not transition from car-dependence to walking and biking until our neighbourhoods are complete and our walks are enjoyable. Habits won't change until walking is better, nicer, more convenient, and more enjoyable than getting in a car -- like the places we go on vacation.


"It's time for Ottawa to adopt the following definition of a walkable neighbourhood: a neighbourhood in which residents can conveniently & safely walk year-round to roughly 80% of their weekly destinations along routes that are enjoyable, safe, and with reliable & frequent transit."

And then, of course, this definition impacts us where it really hurts -- in our wallets. The City is committing to walkable neighbourhoods and that will require municipal spending on sidewalks, tree planting, park upgrades, expanded recreation centres and more. Walkable neighbourhoods come at some cost to the City, but if we are clear about our definition, walkable neighbourhoods would bring net savings, and on a large scale!

"Habits won't change until walking is better, nicer, more convenient, and more enjoyable than getting in a car..."

The City will save millions on infrastructure by intensifying existing neighbourhoods without needing to widen or upgrade roads. And with less driving, the City will dramatically reduce emissions. Most other emissions savings that Ottawa is planning are pretty costly. In comparison, this alternative is an absolute steal.

So let's keep talking about 15 minute walkable neighbourhoods. But when we say 'walkable', let's be clear about what we mean.


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Rosaline Hill is an Ottawa based architect and development consultant.

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