Walkable cities: how does Auckland score?

March 3, 2017

Design for Auckland

The ADM’s final post of Walking School Bus Week looks at the increasingly popular concept of the ’20-Minute Neighbourhood’ and whether it can be applied to Auckland.

A few years ago, I was staying with family in an Auckland suburb I won’t name (suffice to say a certain fictional TV family called the Wests lived on the same street) because I had to work nearby. The street connected to a main road near a motorway exit, which in peak traffic times was congested for hours, so walking anywhere was tricky and cycling was nigh on suicidal. I was without a car, so several times I waited for irregular buses into town that never showed up, leaving me truly aware of the depths of my impatience.

Though the area was blessed with beautiful parks and was a short drive away from numerous glorious beaches, amenities were few. Dinner options came down to Wendy’s or the fish and chippy. Shopping? Not so much. Entertainment? Yeah, nah. And to add insult to injury, you couldn’t buy booze at the supermarket. The overall experience was one of being punished for not having a car.

Walking and cycling can seem outrageous in low-density suburban areas


The “20-Minute Neighbourhood” is a concept popularised by the Portland-based development firm Gerding Edlen, in which you as a resident can “do all of the necessary and enjoyable things that make life great within 20 minutes of your home”. Less transit time, the firm argues, means more time for leisure and hanging out with family and friends. Stronger social connections are formed, greenhouse gas emissions decrease and by walking everywhere, people get fitter.

In 2009, Portland’s green and dapper mayor, Sam Adams (who later appeared on the comedy show Portlandia playing an obsequious assistant mayor to Kyle McLachlan while enthusing about being able to bike and walk around the city), announced that by 2030 he wanted 90 percent of residents’ basic, non-work needs to be a hop, skip and a jump away. His plan envisioned easy access to destinations such as transit, shopping, quality food, schools, parks and entertainment.

The above plan maps the walkability of Portland - yellow = very walkable, purple = not walkable

The above map highlights the walkability of Portland – yellow = very walkable, purple = not walkable (Source: The City of Portland)


At that time Portland was suffering from rising energy costs, population growth and road congestion. Its population of roughly 600,000 was expected to increase by almost half within 25 years, which meant it had to plan for hundreds of thousands of new apartments and jobs. It needed more public transit to connect to further-flung suburbs. Bits of Portland were walkable but others typified suburban sprawl.

The 20-minute neighborhood has three basic characteristics: walkable environments, destinations that support basic living needs and, importantly, the residential density required for businesses and facilities to be supported. Adams explained to The Atlantic in 2010 how the concept fosters happiness and dispels loneliness. “You get your needs met and also have a sense of community and camaraderie with the folks that you share the neighborhood with.” He argued a more self-reliant city would be less vulnerable to the vagaries of energy costs, and said the strategy could be replicated in other cities. Though Adams was replaced in 2011, his plan lives on.

Portland has pioneered the concept of the 20-minute neighbourhood (Source: The City of Portland)

By 2030, Portland is aiming to have 90 percent of residents’ basic, non-work needs less than a 20-minute walk away (Source: The City of Portland)


Since then, the popularity of the 20-minute neighbourhood, aka the urban village, has spread to other parts of the US and the world. Research by the National Association of Realtors in the US found that 85 percent of survey participants said “sidewalks are a positive factor when purchasing a home, and 79 percent place importance on being within easy walking distance of places”. Walkable neighborhoods are seeing significant jumps in property values, and many communities that cater to older residents now emphasise walkable amenities.

In 2016, Detroit got in on the action. Motor City’s fortunes once rose and fell with the automobile industry and since the 1950s its suburbs have been among the most car-dependent in America. As Robin Boyle, professor of urban planning at Wayne State University, put it, writing in the Detroit Free Press: “The two or even three-car garage was far more important than the sidewalk, or the neighborhood store. Need a quart of milk or a pound of sugar? No problem. Jump into the car, scoot down the cul-de-sac and drive three miles to the A&P or Kroger.” But the car industry eventually drove off into the sunset, and Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013. The city was forced to remake itself, and younger citizens wanted tighter, denser, better connected and more walkable streets.

Detroit, the former 'Motor City', is looking to get people out of their cars and onto the pavements

Detroit, the former ‘Motor City’, is looking to get people out of their cars and onto the pavements (Source: The New York Times)


But there was one problem. Boyle argued the key to the 20-minute neighbourhood is density; that the idea only works in areas that are close to shops, a park and maybe a primary school, and where enough households have enough disposable income to sustain the services. And while this is true for Detroit’s downtown/Midtown corridor and a few other neighborhoods, most of the city has a lower residential density. Boyle argues that success will depend on fostering areas best suited to denser amenities, which means leaving other areas out.

Feasibility in Auckland

So is the 20-minute concept feasible in Tāmaki Makaurau, the place allegedly desired by many? I entered our fair city into Walk Score, a website that ranks thousands of international cities and neighborhoods in terms of their walkability on a scale of 1 to 100. In the States, a one-point increase on Walk Score translates into a $US3000 boost in real estate value. Turns out Auckland’s city centre is a “walker’s paradise” with a perfect score of 100, compared with, say, Sydney on a mere 63. But the aforementioned suburb I stayed in scored just 54 (“somewhat walkable – some errands can be accomplished on foot”) and a measly 38 for transit. And plenty of other Auckland suburbs do poorly on one or both of those fronts.

Auckland's CBD earns a perfect 100 on Walk Score (Source: Emerging Auckland)

Auckland’s CBD earns a perfect 100 on Walk Score (Source: Emerging Auckland)


On Transport Blog, in a 2010 article entitled “Auckland: NZ’s least walkable city”, writer Jeremy Harris argues that while Wellington is “fantastically walkable”,  its northern sister is a mess, and he calls on local body politicians to do something about Queen Street, “which is basically a four-lane highway in the heart of our city”. Commenters propose closing off Queen Street but allowing buses and taxis, mirroring the setup on Melbourne’s Swanston Street and Oxford Street in London.

Melbourne's Swanston Street was turned into a park for one weekend in  1985 for the city's 150th birthday celebrations - today, the road is entirely car free (Source: Projects on the Road)

Melbourne’s Swanston Street was turned into a park for one weekend in 1985 for the city’s 150th birthday celebrations – today, the road is entirely car free (Source: Projects on the Road)


London's Oxford Street restricts traffic primarily to buses and taxis, with widened footpaths for pedestrians (Source: Fast Company)

London’s Oxford Street restricts traffic primarily to buses and taxis, with widened footpaths for pedestrians (Source: Fast Company)


Auckland’s bikeability has at least improved since then. A number of dedicated cycle lanes, including the pink-jewel in Auckland’s cycling crown, the Lightpath, have recently been opened and ridership numbers are booming.

The recently-consented SkyPath, which will run beneath the Harbour Bridge, is due to begin construction in 2018 and will finally provide a link for cyclists looking to travel between the city centre and northern suburbs. This is proposed to link with the SeaPath, an NZTA initiative that will provide an uninterrupted walking and cycling network between Esmonde Road and the city centre.

Cycling Quay St

Auckland’y cycling network has rapidly expanded over recent years, making cycling an efficient means of transport in the city


These days, I’m based in central Auckland. It’s an area that in the 1970s served as a community market for its population of mainly Pacific Island people. Now, there are numerous cafes and restaurants, a Cosmic Corner, and plenty of seedy bars and clubs. I know many of my neighbours and public transport is decent. Most days, however, I wish I could turn back time to the 70s for some fresh groceries, a bookstore or somewhere to buy socks. If Motor City can do the impossible and reinvent itself as On-Foot City, surely we Aucklanders can also dream of living in walkable, bikeable, 20-minute neighbourhoods?

Do you think 20-minute neighbourhoods are feasible in Auckland? Let us know in the comments section below.

After a little further reading on the subject? Check out the ADM’s Streets Hub, which showcases inspirational case studies & innovative ways to transform car dominated streets, as well as our resources on how to design for health, activity and wellbeing.

Next week, we look at the delicate art of creating successful public places.

Article by Julie Hill

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