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What "Walkable" Means -and What It Doesn't

This blog represents the views of the authour as indicated and not necessarily the position of Walkable Ottawa. Have an idea for a blog? We’d love to hear from you! Drop us an email at: walkableottawainfo@gmail.com

“Walkable” can mean different things for different people. There’s no universally accepted definition of walkability, but rather several interpretations of the word which all share a vague theme that relates to how conducive a neighbourhood, or any geographic area, is for walking.

Walkable Ottawa’s definition of walkability is the following: "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 are where walking, cycling and public transit are safe and reliable modes of transportation to meet our daily needs. They feature most or all of the amenities we need, which means not having to exit the neighbourhood to reach these amenities. They also don’t require us to hop into a vehicle to run most of our errands, but don’t usually inhibit vehicle travel either for those of us that rely on it.

“Walkable” is not a one-size-fits-all term – walkable neighbourhoods come in various forms, and it’s that endless variation between localities that makes every neighbourhood and every city unique.


The following is what walkability, by our definition, isn’t concerned with: building height, building setbacks from the street, architectural styles of buildings, landscaping style related to flowerbeds and streetlights, the shape of street blocks, and overall street width. These are all elements that can vary from one walkable neighbourhood to the next. As long as these neighbourhoods are cohesive, rich in a variety of amenities, and are safe and convenient to get around by foot, bike, skateboard, scooter, rollerblade, bus, tramway, train, or even by ski or snowshoe depending on the weather, they are all walkable in their own right.


“Walkable” is not a one-size-fits-all term – walkable neighbourhoods come in various forms, and it’s that endless variation between localities that makes every neighbourhood and every city unique.


Many residents wonder, and indeed express concern, about how walkability would look in their neighbourhood if they don’t already live in a walkable area. But the question should instead be, how do residents want walkability to look in their neighbourhood?


Achieving walkability doesn’t have to mean replicating the look and feel of central neighbourhoods and copy-pasting these designs into suburban neighbourhoods.

There are certain prescriptive ingredients that make a neighbourhood walkable. A mix of housing types, a scattered variety of stores, easily accessible parks and parkettes, extensive connectivity between streets, sufficient street lighting in the evening, and a relatively compact built form that keeps things at a walking distance from each other, to name a few. But how that all looks, and what that all includes, is free rein.



Achieving walkability doesn’t have to mean replicating the look and feel of central neighbourhoods and copy-pasting these designs into suburban neighbourhoods. What it means is improving the safety and comfort of pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, and enhancing the presence of local shops that are at a walking distance from people’s homes.


Walkability can be achieved while also maintaining the look and feel of the buildings and landscaping in our neighbourhoods – like tree canopy, easily accessible greenspace, specific building heights and footprints, and the overall rhythm and pattern of buildings along the street. Where we need to focus our efforts is defining those physical characteristics that we want to keep in our neighbourhoods as they transition to become more walkable.


Walkability is safety, comfort and vibrancy at the human scale – and it isn’t quite as strict and prescriptive as many of us think.



~ XAVIER BRADBURY-JOST is a regular blog contributor for Walkable Ottawa.


Have an idea for a blog? We’d love to hear from you! Drop us an email at: walkableottawainfo@gmail.com

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