To walk or not to walk? That is the question

The best way to understand why an individual, or a group or population walks or not is to develop an overall model of what prompts and impedes walking. Mariela A. Alfonzo developed the framework for such a model in 2005 as a doctoral student in planning and design at the University of California.

Alfonzo drew together findings of studies about personal backgrounds, population demographics, access to recreational facilities, and physical settings. No earlier study had looked at all those factors at once, and none offered an overarching theory about how personal preferences, sociological backgrounds, places, and design factors related to one another. Alfonzo felt an understanding of the walk/don’t walk decision could be gained only with a model that assigned  primary and secondary roles to such factors and declared which of them precipitated behavior and which only moderated it.

Alfonzo sought to create such an overall model, one that included psychological, environmental, and interactive factors involved in walking decisions. She called it a social-ecological model and believed that it is the only path to designing effective policies, programs, and design guidelines for stimulating walking.

The theory, as modified here, proposes a hierarchy of human needs that the psychologist Abraham Maslow developed in the 1950s, which suggested that people act in a predictable sequence, from most primal to least pressing need, for instance, from tending to survival long before indulging in helping others. Once felt, a need—for food, say—creates a drive to find a place where it can be satisfied, thus linking human needs to landscapes. Starving, I will seek out a grocery store.

A person’s drive to fulfill the need will be moderated by two other sets of factors: personal modifiers, based on the individual’s abilities and outlooks (Can I walk or should I drive?), and a physical set based on conditions along the intervening paths (How far is the grocery store? Is it raining?). Each part of the overall model will be described in upcoming blogs. To see what it looks like in full, click here.

The interplay between the positive drive of our needs toward places they will be satisfied, tempered by our personal limits—real or imagined—and impediments along the path forms the substance of the model of walking and determines who will walk, where, how, and how much. A designer armed with this information occupies a strong position from which to configure paths.

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