‘Rotterdam can inspire cities around the world’


On 7 October the Annual International ’Conference on Walking and Liveable Cities, organised by the Walk21 Foundation, will land in Rotterdam, and it will be here until 10 October. Founder Jim Walker is happy to be visiting the Maasstad; he sees Rotterdam as a good example of a pedestrian-friendly city that can inspire other cities from around the world.

Walking is a great way to work towards achieving aims with global support, such as combating climate change and reducing congestion, obesity and loneliness. Through his Walk21 network, Walker has been getting this message out since 2000.

Pedestrian-friendly design

And successfully, too. Over the past 19 years, his vision has brought the international pedestrian’s conference to cities such as Munich, Barcelona and London, Vancouver, Bogota , Hong Kong and Sydney. “We’ve started the ball rolling for positive changes everywhere we’ve been. We’re seeing city centres gaining a healthier, more pedestrian-friendly design. Of course there’s still some way to go, but now it’s more common in inner cities to see a vibrant economy, rising house prices and a growing group of young people choosing to walk in our cities.” There will be more than enough examples of these trends at the conference, and not just from Rotterdam – Vienna, Bremen, Marrakesh, Tehran and Manila will be represented too.

Walk the Talk

So what’s the reason for this success? Walk21 gets a dialogue going between policy-makers and citizens. “Politicians’ motives and obstacles can vary between countries, and the interests of the community can differ too. We look for common ground; for example, in most places each person makes three journeys a day and often all those journeys involve walking. Walk21 starts the conversation about how to make sure those walking experiences are safe, accesible and welcoming; the idea is for it to be a co-creation.” There’s a good reason the sub-title of the conference is ‘Walk the talk’!

Countries in development

Walker recently visited several cities in Africa, Latin America and South East Asia in partnership with the UN Environment Programme, going to cities such as Kampala (Uganda), Nairobi (Kenya) and Manila (Philippines). “In many of those countries, 80% of the population walk. Unfortunately that’s not much fun however: People walk for necessity and too often choose to travel in motor vehicles as soon as they can afford too. 80% of the mobility budget in Kampala is spent on cars, even though just 20% of the people there have access to a car. It pays to invest in a walkable city, because that leads to an equitable and more sustainable city with healthier citizens and thereby ultimately also greater satisfaction with life. We’ve also seen that private actors are investing in walking, for example in Manila. That’s an eye-opener for politicians, too.”

The Netherlands leads the field

Getting back to our own country: Walker sees Rotterdam, which is hosting this year’s Walk21, as a good example of a pedestrian-friendly city. “They rebuilt the entire station around public transport. And connected it to the city centre with an accessible walking route. That sends a clear signal: the pedestrian has the priority – or as I like to say - the City has invested in VIP’s (Very Improtant Pedestrians)”.

Amsterdam is now also adopting this development, as Walker sees it: “The area around the station used to be chaotic, with traffic flows crossing over each other, but that is slowly changing. Design standards have changed over the past 10 or 15 years: people are being prioritised more and more. Dutch people are some of the most active travellers, but car ownership is stil on the rise.”

The leader of the international ’walking conference sees the Netherlands as taking a trend-setting role on the journey towards a new, cleaner world that makes more space for walking. “You are known around the world for cycling and your friendly inner city street designs. You’re not afraid to set change in motion. The challenge now is not to forget the basics: 18% of people cycle in Rotterdam but the same survey says 28% walk. In fact we all walk, after all. Without walking we’ll be less healthy, social and happy. And that would be a real loss so we need to invest some more in that!”

Walking indicators

During the Walking conference in Rotterdam, Walk21 will launch new SUMP (Sustainable Urban Mobility Planning, Ed.) guidance for Cities  who want to be more Walkable.  We will also be launching some new Indicators for Walking  that were written in cooperation with the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) and UN Habitat to helop with the delviery of the Sustainable Development Goals. Until now, Walker explains, walking has been overlooked at the EU. “Up to now there’s been just one set of indicators for sustainable transport, and that was the amount of cycle paths in kilometres. I couldn’t believe that: even after 19 years of Walk21, the value of walking is still not an indicator.  We are glad to be changing that” 

That’s why the leader of Walk21 is happy that his organisation got the chance to write the new guidance. The recommendations involve a total of 30 indicators, all helping qualify the quality of access to public transport. “There should be a 500-metre accessible pedestrian area, without obstacles, around railway stations. Using GIS data, we can see how many people live and work in the area around stations and we now have 500 cities particpating in that . That means we can determine whether or not the area is accessible enough.” Walker hopes the European Commission will adopt his recommendations and that they will be incorporated into European policy.

Walking strategy

The City of Rotterdam is also drafting its own walking strategy – and that makes Walker very happy. “That’s a real pioneering move, I’m really looking forward to it. The municipality is being inspired by the conference and im delighted that they are using this opportunity to make better policy. Rotterdam is already a feature in the walking guidance and we look forward to supporting  the delivery of  the strategy as it develops .”

According to Walker, Rotterdam is showing admirable leadership. “People recognise the importance of a good walking network. Everyone in the Netherlands walks, but just like in Kampala or Nairobi probably 80% of the mobility budget is not spent on walking. We are making walking visible in Rotterdam and hopefully, as a result, that will change. This is the first time in four years that Walk21 is being held in Europe: hopefully Rotterdam will inspire cities around the world. Because, believe me, every place - from Antwerp to Zanzibar can learn from each other. They’re looking for examples.”


Walk21 is all about walking in the 21st century. The organisation has been around for almost two decades and has pushed walking up the political agenda all around the world. But Walker is aware that there’s a lot of progress still to be made. “One of the next steps is to focus more on the outskirts of cities; that’s often where you find transport poverty, where people can’t afford transportation. And that means people have less access to work, health care and education. That’s precisely where walking offers a solution. We shouldn’t exclude anybody.”

A safe place for children to play

He goes on to say that the we see the people change in the adminstrations, but the mobility issues are still there. “Investments in technological solutions seem so much more exciting and innovative than walking; a few years ago you had the Segway, and now there’s the e-scooter. At first I struggled a bit with that, but I’ve learned that those developments are fleeting. The issues that underlie those developments remain, and they involve things like healthy air, social cohesion or a safe place for children to play. That’s why Walk21 is still so important.” 

And that’s why Walker keeps spreading the word in a positive way. “I have a clear goal in mind and I’m going to stay on that path – I won’t be diverted. The more people I can convince of the importance of walking, the more people will share that message more widely. That’s why I do what I do so that every step is better.”