What is Walkability?

Walkability is a quantitative and qualitative measurement of how inviting or un-inviting an area is to pedestrians. Walking matters more and more to towns and cities as the connection between walking and socially vibrant neighbourhoods is becoming clearer. Built environments that promote and facilitate walking - to stores, work, school and amenities – are better places to live, have higher real estate values, promote healthier lifestyles and have higher levels of social cohesion.

When you think of an area you like to walk, it probably has certain conditions or features that make it walker-friendly. For many that means wide well-maintained sidewalks, benches, good lighting, direct routes, interesting stores, buildings and amenities. For others it might mean shady green spaces, quieter routes or places where strollers, dogs and scooters are welcome. Walkability is a subjective measurement – some people like to stroll quietly on side streets, while others seek out the hustle and bustle of busy commercial districts. Often these subjective considerations are about our desire to be safe, other times it’s about aesthetic preferences.

Examining the walkability of a neighbourhood, town or city is an important factor to consider when thinking about making places more welcoming, livable and safe. Areas where lots of people are around, shopping, going to work or school, or just hanging out are considered more desirable living places which promote social connectedness, healthy lifestyles and reduce car dependence and greenhouse gas emissions.

Our Walkability Tool Kit is a very basic introduction to the concepts of walkability and offers some simple tools to help you measure and capture the walking environment in your neighbourhood. The process helps connect local residents, raises awareness about what makes a community walkable, and the data and observations collected can be useful in the larger goal of making improvements.


Download Walkability Checklist

The final report is here!  

Walkability in Toronto’s High-Rise Neighbourhoods, by Professor Paul M. Hess, and Jane Farrow of Jane’s Walk. These walkability studies are the first of their kind in North America. They were jointly funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Toronto Community Foundation (TCF).
Click here to download PDF versions of the Walkability Executive Summary or the Walkability Full Report.

For the past three years, the Jane’s Walk team has been conducting unprecedented studies of walkability in suburban highrise neighbourhoods in Toronto, and has developed an acclaimed research model and resource toolkit. The overall goal of this research project is to help better understand the ways people get around Toronto’s high-rise apartment neighbourhoods, especially by walking. Building on the arguments Jane Jacobs espoused more than 40 years ago, the importance of creating good places for people to walk is now increasingly being recognized by transportation experts and public officials. Planners and architects have pushed the idea of “New Urbanism,” arguing that new neighbourhoods should be built more like the Annex or Cabbagetown neighbourhoods of downtown Toronto, with connected streets and houses that directly front sidewalks. Public health researchers and officials even suggest that the ways we are designing our cities has contributed to the recent rise in physical inactivity and obesity because people no longer walk as part of their regular, daily activities, and there is an increasing move toward the idea of “complete streets” that consider all modes of travel in street design.

These discussions, however, are usually focused on downtown areas or new developments in the outer suburbs. This study is intended to put more focus on the many people living in Toronto’s inner suburbs.  As people interested in making better walking environments, we believe that Toronto’s high-rise neighbourhoods are enormously important.

These types of places were planned and developed in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, it was assumed that most of the people living in the new apartments would not have children, would move to houses as soon as they could, and would be able to drive to the places they needed to go. The single-family subdivisions in these areas were, at least, designed so that children could walk to school, but the apartments on big arterial streets were not places designed for walking.

Today, however, a different population is living in them, often people with limited incomes, people with children and complicated travel needs, and people who do not own a car or who only have access to a car part of the time. In other words, neighbourhoods that were designed for cars now house people that must rely on walking and transit to carry out their lives. This study is intended to better understand how these residents get around their neighbourhoods, especially by walking. Our goal is to share this information with the people who live in them so they can better advocate for improvements.

This is a good time for residents to make clear what they want and need because of policies and programs being developed by the City of Toronto. The City is working with local community organizations and developing policies and programs for 13 Priority Neighbourhoods that include many of the high-rise apartment areas. It is adopting a “Walking Strategy” to “make Toronto a great walking city” that explicitly includes these areas.  It is currently developing a “Tower Renewal” program that also promises to bring improvements to apartment areas. Finally, the City has an ambitious transit plan, “Transit City,” that could bring light-rail and other transportation improvements to some of these neighbourhoods. All these initiatives offer some potential for changing apartment neighbourhoods into better places to live.

The authors do not represent the city and we do not know what will become of these various initiatives, but we strongly believe that better information about how residents use their neighbourhoods is crucially important to making positive change. For these efforts to be successful and make Toronto a better place for its residents, we believe that the residents themselves must have a strong voice and play a central role in decision-making. We are doing this work to provide both residents and the City with information to help foster this objective.


Our Research Process

We use three basic methods: a facilitated walk with groups of residents to allow them to talk about their neighbourhoods and the types of places and facilities they use and how they work; a short individual survey that asks about where and how often people walk to carry out daily activities like shopping and going to the bus stop; and a facilitated social mapping exercise where residents talk about the walking environments in the neighbourhood as a whole as their ideas are recorded on a shared community map.

A preliminary report for each neighbourhood studied can be used by residents and community groups to work with the city to make changes or modifications to their walking environment. A general report will be created to help better highlight these types of inner suburban communities. This report will be available to the general public and submitted to the Toronto Pedestrian Committee and other community stakeholders. Academic articles will also be written by Professor Paul Hess to add to the growing literature on walking and neighbourhoods.

An overview report summarizing findings written by Professor Paul Hess and Jane Farrow will be available in September 2011. In the meantime, please read our preliminary Walkability Reports from the high rise neighbourhoods of Toronto, the first such studies done in North America’s inner suburbs.


Preliminary Neighbourhood Studies

Chalk Farm  download as PDF
Chalk Farm is a block of four apartment buildings in the northwest quadrant of Toronto. These towers were built in the 1970’s and are located north west of the Jane Street and Wilson Avenue intersection, directly behind the busy Sheridan Mall.

Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park download as PDF
Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park is located in the north east section of Scarborough that faces significant challenges to social cohesion in the built environment and infrastructure. Bounded by the busy arterials and bisected by a ravine, Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park is home to a dense and vibrant community of people, almost half of whom live in high rise buildings.

North Kipling  download as PDF
North Kipling is in northern Etobicoke, between Finch and Steeles Avenues West. The neighbourhood stretches along Kipling Avenue, whose east side is dominated by a chain of apartment towers. Opposite the towers are schools, churches and a number of residential bungalows, while behind them the Humber River and ravine create a natural eastern border.

The Peanut  download as PDF
The Peanut is a neighbourhood in North York straddling Don Mills Avenue between Sheppard and Finch Avenues East. The neighbourhood namesake is a large peanut-shaped area of land defined by the splitting of Don Mills Road into two sections, one with northbound traffic and the other with southbound traffic.

St. James Town download as PDF
Conceived and built in the 1960s, the St James Town high-rise enclave was originally intended as a ‘city within a city’ and promoted as a desirable address for urbanites, professionals and ‘swinging singles’. It is extremely densely populated with 18 towers and over 18,000 residents spread out over a few city blocks.

Scarborough Village  download as PDF
Scarborough Village is a neighbourhood located at Kingston Road and Eglinton Avenue in east Scarborough that includes four highrise towers on the cul-de-sac of Cougar Court. There is a low vacancy rate in the towers because they are, according to local community organizers, “affordable to newcomers.” According to 2006 Statistics Canada data, about 2,500 people live there in just over 700 apartment units.

Thorncliffe Park  download as PDF
Thorncliffe Park is a neighbourhood located about 10 kilometres northeast of downtown Toronto. Planned and built in the 1950s, the area now houses a diverse population of almost 18,000 people, although some informants familiar with the area have suggested the actually population is much higher.

Steeles-L’Amoreaux  download as PDF
Steeles-L’Amoreaux is a tight-knit neighbourhood in northeast Toronto composed primarily of winding residential streets, highrises, midrises and townhouses. Many residents are dependent on public transit.