Wellington Scoop

What is “walkable?”


Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington PhD student Swarnali Dihingia’s research is at the crux of New Zealand’s intensification debate.

The National Policy Statement on Urban Development 2020 (NPS-UD) requires a six-storey minimum building height within the walkable catchment of rapid transit stops or the edge of the city centre and metropolitan centre zones.

Now, cities and communities that are for and against intensification — that is, creating urban living spaces that are much closer together than the currently more common sprawl of cities — are debating what is ‘walkable’. Swarnali’s research aims to help answer this question, using tourists as an indicator of how walkable a city is.

“Tourists are more susceptible to the qualities of the urban environment, its safety, and the level of comfort and pleasantness a city has to offer,” Swarnali says. “These elements play a significant role in determining whether a route is suitably walkable or not.”

To learn more about the walkability of our cities, Swarnali has investigated tourists’ walking routes and behaviour in Wellington and Christchurch and how they interact with the city topography, public life and spaces, and weather conditions (including Wellington’s often challenging wind).

“New Zealand cities are a blend of high-quality urban spaces that cater for pedestrians, such as Wellington’s Cuba Street or Christchurch’s new downtown areas. However, the under-investment in public spaces outside these locations has a clear impact on walkability”, she says.

Swarnali’s initial findings have shown that while many central environments in Wellington and Christchurch are accessible to pedestrians, the streetscape elements did have a significant impact on pedestrian comfort and satisfaction with the route. In particular, the tourists felt unsafe on the pedestrianised Wellington waterfront due to distress from running into cyclists and scooters or from overcrowding.

Swarnali encourages local authorities such as the Wellington City Council and the Christchurch Council to consider tourists as a metric for understanding walkability and walking behaviour as they are the most susceptible to what the city has provided.

“There is much more at stake here than a walkable commute. Walking routes are also economically profitable to businesses and have positive physical and mental health outcomes.”

To advance her research, Swarnali is seeking engagement with the Wellington City Council and the Christchurch City Council, Waka Kotahi the NZ Transport Agency, the tourism sector, walking advocates, and individuals. From engaging these organisations and people, she will provide insights into where and how to improve walkability in New Zealand’s cities. With discussions unfolding across New Zealand due to the National Policy Statement on Urban Development and the Resource Management Act reforms, these insights will be critical in defining walkable catchments for urban intensification.

Swarnali Dihingia is a PhD candidate in the Wellington Faculty of Architecture and Design Innovation under the supervision of Associate Professor Morten Gjerde and Professor Brenda Vale.
Contact Swarnali to hear more about this research on swarnali.dihingia@vuw.ac.nz.


  1. greenwelly, 19. November 2021, 9:27

    “In particular, the tourists felt unsafe on the pedestrianised Wellington waterfront due to distress from running into cyclists and scooters or from overcrowding.” And these tourists are from where? On an international scale, the “overcrowding” on Wellington waterfront is negligible, If you want crowding go to NY or any Asian city and you will find far more crowded… Closer to home Sydney’s waterfront is always way busier than Wellington.

  2. Dave B, 19. November 2021, 10:17

    I can understand a tendency to feel harassed on the waterfront by certain types on bikes and scooters who act antisocially.

  3. Claire, 19. November 2021, 10:17

    This really does need some research. I have tried out the supposed 15 minute walk to central from Newtown and it is very optimistic. It won’t be achieved by less agile, less fit, with a pram, or elderly. Funny this is what zoning is based on!

  4. Richie Bestingface, 19. November 2021, 11:29

    How do they work out the 15 minute area? Time how long it takes someone to walk in a straight line and see how far they get? Then draw a circle on a map with that radius? They should physically go and walk every street they propose this on.

  5. Jim, 19. November 2021, 11:32

    Claire – Remember that the central area has moved to include Adelaide Road.

  6. Ian Turk, 19. November 2021, 15:52

    Sure tourist thoughts on walking in Wellington will provide interesting background, but they will be walking specific routes for entirely different reasons to residents, so don’t base city planning on tourists.

    I’m sure not too many will be getting off the Johnsonville train at Awarua St and walking 15 minutes.

  7. Ian T, 19. November 2021, 15:53

    Richie – there was a lot of street walking by Council officers; local residents in many areas complained about the catchment areas.

  8. Claire, 19. November 2021, 16:17

    Jim: I know that! The tip of John Street still optimistic from certain points within the walkable distance. And I am a walker. When I go tramping we determine our speed and distance by the slowest walker.

  9. Richie Bestingface, 19. November 2021, 18:58

    Ian, I nominate Cr Matthews to do the fifteen minutes walk test.

  10. Henry Filth, 19. November 2021, 22:38

    With enough exposure, this could be the thin end of the opening wedge of the trial balloon. Which would require, or even demand, a round of pre-consultation consultation. Just for once, make a plan and then do it. Action may not be as scary as feared. . . honestly.

  11. Casey, 20. November 2021, 11:24

    Where the walk is uphill, either to get to a bus/train stop or to get home from one, then that should be the measure. Not a downhill run.

  12. Boy, 21. November 2021, 22:58

    I would be curious to know how much influence the tourists’ / visitors’ home city and walking environment has on their perception of walkability.


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