MobilityWalkingCityChanger Bronwen Thornton: Celebrating Walkable Cities

CityChanger Bronwen Thornton: Celebrating Walkable Cities

Cornelia Forsthuber
Cornelia Forsthuber
I'm passionate about including the next generation of CityChangers into the conversation, exploring my city, and meaningful conversations. In my free time, I enjoy the other good things in life: literature, hiking, and eating my way through Vienna.

With a background in architecture and sociology, Bronwen Thornton started her career in government, keenly interested in social justice issues. Attending the Walk21 conference in 2001, she had an epiphany – walking is where it all comes together. Now that she is CEO of Walk21, we sat down with Bronwen to speak about the paradigm shifts she has observed in the past years, what it takes to make cities walkable, and how taking politicians on a walk can be a gamechanger.

Twenty years have passed since what Bronwen recalls as her road to Damascus: being a part of the transport agency’s cycling team back then, a colleague had told her about the Walk21 conference in Perth in 2001. They decided to go and check it out, and that’s where it struck her: transport, architecture, and society – it all comes together in the walkability of a city.

Bronwen realised that she wanted to dedicate her professional life to walking and consequently left Australia to join Living Streets in the UK (back then, a humble team of five). Fast forward to 2021: The 21st Walk21 conference is set to take place in May, and Bronwen can look back on two eventful decades of working with cities, laying the groundwork for walkable cities, and shifting paradigms.

From Niche to Centre Stage: Promoting Walkability in Cities

A lot has changed in the last two decades. The attention paid to the topic and those involved with it has undoubtedly evolved, as Bronwen tells us: “In the beginning, the person who believed in walking was in the back corner of the building, if they were there at all. They were an advocate in their own time; walking was on page 600 of their transport plan. And then they come to our conference, and they feel the most important person for three days – it’s a lovely sense of celebration.”

Besides being a celebration of the topic and its actors, Walk21 is all about creating momentum and leaving a local legacy. Often, walkability efforts accelerate in cities hosting the conference – after all, you want to have something to share as a host city. Whether it is dedicating a whole year to walking (as Vienna did) or using Walk21 as an inspirational puzzle piece in the process of working out a walking strategy (look to Rotterdam), it’s a platform for learning how other cities succeeded and cherry-picking what could work for you.

On a global agenda, Bronwen has seen paradigm shifts in the conversation on walking and road safety: just last year, with the Stockholm declaration, the focus moved from identifying and reducing the risk to pinpointing where danger is and how to reduce it. One of the ten recommendations for improving road safety is to encourage mode shift to walking and cycling. This means that money formally assigned to road infrastructure can be leveraged to walking and cycling now; it’s a shift to recognising that everyone has a right to the space.

Having been part of 18 out of 20 conferences, what can Bronwen share regarding universal challenges and insights from cities worldwide?

From Hong Kong to Toronto, to Munich: What It Takes to Make a City Walkable

Do all cities face the same challenges, or are there differences depending on local context? “It’s not as different as local people will tell you”, Bronwen says jokingly, and continues:

“You can always find the differences, but the doing… making it happen is the same. It’s the political will and the commitment to doing something that is necessary everywhere.”

The starting point seems to be somewhat similar: it’s a suppressed demand for walking, not understanding how much people walk already, and not seeing or valuing it. “Once you shine a light on what’s actually going on around walking, or what the potential for walking is, the opportunities are substantial.”

First, you need to cover the basics: you have to have political imperatives, and you have to have data. After that, it’s a case of working out and investing in what’s required. “The things that are needed are always the same: people need walking to be safe, comfortable, direct, and attractive.” In short, you have to make the choice to walk desirable.

It is fundamentally different in developing countries, where people don’t have a choice. Over the last couple of years, Walk21 focused on working with African nations and countries in Latin America and Asia. “People don’t have the choice except to walk, and yet we punish them with unsafe conditions, with dirty air, with no sidewalks. That’s when it’s different”, Bronwen says. The focus here is getting the basics in place but it still needs to be safe comfortable and direct. We must build in walking as cities develop, rather than having to retrofit and return to all the things we’ve been doing elsewhere to get people out of their cars.

“Ultimately, the real impact for walking is embedding it in design standards, good governance and funding, so that every time you work on the streets and make street changes, you make it better for walking”, Bronwen stresses. It’s not only about one-off projects or making one intersection nice: you have to embed it in your governance, systems, and standards.

But how do advocates get the political will and commitment in place?

How to Sell It: Politicians Taking a Walk

When it comes to political support, commitment to funding can be a pretty tough sell. Very often, advocates are fobbed off and told that there just isn’t enough money. Bronwen knows better:

“There is enough money, it’s just about how you spread it around. You can do a lot for walking with very small amounts of money. So, the way we work is, we try to help governments identify how walking helps their agendas.”

If a political party is running on a climate agenda, a health agenda, or a traffic efficiency agenda, walking delivers for all of them. It’s all about translating the amazingness of walking into the models that politicians need for decision-making.

Sometimes, all it takes to change a politician’s mind and make her or him aware of what’s needed is to simply take them on a walk through their city. Bronwen recalls doing this in Romania and a couple of other places, oftentimes with politicians that had never walked through their city before. In Bucharest, one such politician returned to his office afterwards and wrote a declaration to get cars off the footpaths – because he finally experienced first-hand how difficult it is to walk in a city with cars parking on sidewalks everywhere.

A similar incident occurred in Toronto: Bronwen conducted a walking audit with a local politician and brought along her son in a buggy. Never before had the politician realised how bad the city was for people on wheels, as a non-disabled man who didn’t experience the city in that way. “It’s a level of lack of understanding or recognition, and I know colleagues and friends in India who also got their politicians out to go for a walk in their cities. And they were shocked as well”, she shares.

Take your politicians on a walk, level up their understanding for pedestrians, let them experience their city first-hand. It could quite literally be the first step for them to take towards making a city more walkable.

The question that follows is: how can walkability be put into practice?

Law or Strategy: What Makes Walkability Work in Cities?

Some cities have them, most cities don’t: a specific strategy on how to become more walkable. While cities like Rotterdam, Vienna, or London have them, Berlin went the other way and introduced a pedestrian law. What is it, now, that works most effectively to enforce walkability in cities?

It’s none of the above, per se. Having been to so many cities worldwide with the Walk21 conference, Bronwen knows that a walking strategy or a pedestrian law itself is no guarantee – what makes or breaks walkability efforts are, again, both the political willpower and the commitment to implementation.

Copenhagen did it all without a strategy, and it worked – but they built on a momentum that had grown for more than 30 years. A stand-alone walking strategy that is not embedded in a city’s mobility strategy, public space strategy, health strategy, climate action strategy etc. – so basically not connected to all the topics walking touches upon – is likely of no use – it just gathers dust on a shelf. The potential of a walking strategy much rather lies in the process of developing it and the subsequent process of implementation:

“If you see the strategy as a process to bring stakeholders together, to harness all those different agents and energy into delivering something new and giving you a sense of starting from here and going to there – fantastic, a strategy really helps!”, Bronwen emphasises. It then communicates the sense of priority to other parts of organisations, it helps to frame and motivate, and finally, it helps with allocating funding from the various departments that the walking strategy ties in with. Rotterdam (see link above) is an excellent example of a walking strategy that builds upon, relates to, and is embedded in the various other strategies that the city follows.

Getting Started Yourself: Advice for CityChangers

For Bronwen, it’s all about finding your issue and getting focused. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to do too much. “If you’re a small person, in the community, doing it outside of regular hours: choose an issue, keep it manageable, go for those quick wins. Especially around walking, I’m a really big fan of quick wins, so that you get a sense of reward and momentum”, she points out.

Build your research base, choose your actions, find your allies, find a champion somewhere in the system, get a media strategy. It might sound like cliché advocacy stuff, but this is what gets you going, Bronwen reassures. If you’re working as a consultant in a big company, there are other ways to go: don’t hide behind what the client demands, challenge them! If you don’t want to challenge them at the start, slip it in in subtle ways. When you’re asked to design a road, don’t only design it for cars, make it work for pedestrians, too.

In a way, this is where Bronwen’s career comes full circle – she started out with a keen interest in social justice issues, and after all, making a city walkable is very much about making it liveable, inclusive, and accessible for everybody.

So, what is it that we can take away from Bronwen’s 20+ years of experience?

  • The be all and end all of really getting things done: political willpower and commitment to the implementation. Take your politician on a walk to have her or him experience and understand the city through the eyes of pedestrians.
  • Don’t make walkability a one-off project – interconnect it with the city’s agendas, break departmental and organisational silos, and work hard to embed it in standards and policies.
  • To get started, identify your issue, and find your focus. Keep it manageable, recruit allies, and don’t miss out on rewarding yourself with quick wins.

And remember, it’s all about the journey!

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