The (Im)Possible walking in Sofia

by Silvia Chakarova

Periodically global leading topics in city planning and development become popular and for a certain period of time attract the professional discourse, research and policies, only to shortly after leave the stage to the new hot topic.* Such topics, amongst many others, are natural resources management, the protection of cultural heritage, sustainable development, informal settlements, creative industries, and smart cities. This process often has a positive impact on the topic at hand as it provokes discussions and actions by the state and local decision-making bodies and individuals. Such a topic from the past couple of decades, gaining considerable attention in the past 15 years,* is the topic of walking in the cities.

Why is walking important?

Walking is the most basic means of human mobility. However, it is often perceived as restrictive, low-brow and not suited for persons of a high social status (Hodgson, 2012, p. 17). At the same time especially in academic circles it is praised for its importance for people’s physical well-being (Lee & Buncher, 2008; Morris & Hardman, 1997; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008; e.g. World Health Organization, 2011) and the variety of social skills and abilities that people gain from walking. The British anthropologist Tim Ingold refers to it as an important “intrinsically social activity” (2004, p. 328) and “a highly intelligent activity” (2004, p. 332), an intelligence acquired and manifested through the whole human body, not just the mind. This intelligence is the whole-body (body and mind) experience of walking and being in public spaces. Consciously or unconsciously, walking engages and stimulates our senses – we listen/hear, look/see, touch, feel, and smell. Moving on foot realises the emotional connection between people and cities.

Kevin Lynch (1960) and Jane Jacobs (1961) have both identified streets as the main element which constructs the image of the city because they are the main space where people observe cities and construct the image of the urban environment in their minds*. Lynch (1960, p. 47) argues that “(p)eople observe the city while moving through it”. Later on Ingold, drawing on Gibson (1979), argues that not only observation, but also “perception is … a function of movement” (Ingold, 2004, p. 331) and that people perceive their surrounding environment in motion and not from static points. Observing and perceiving the city while moving through it is not only a prerequisite for creating a personal image or for sharing the public image of the city, but also a prerequisite for gaining awareness of the built environment and the processes it accommodates. Such awareness is also considered to be beneficial for enhancing citizens’ action and participation since people who walk in the city have a better knowledge of it and the challenges which the city and its citizens are facing.

Promoting walking in large cities and providing an environment which would make people choose walking instead of other means of transportation helps creating an unconscious preference towards walking. Similar to the bicycle consciousness which Enrique Peñalosa* talks about (2002, as cited in Cervero, Sarmiento, Jacoby, Gomez, & Neiman, 2009), enabling and promoting walking in cities could be referred to as unintentional creation of walking consciousness. It is necessary that it becomes engrained in the minds of the young and car-less generation. If young people would grow up with this attitude towards the built environment and mobility behaviour in cities, walking could be transformed from a conscious choice into an unconscious behaviour (i.e. habit).

Frances Hodgson (2012, p. 20) describes the rich “repertoire” of social and physical competences people gain through and while walking – bodily synchronisation, negotiation of space, traffic consciousness, observation of the environment, danger-reducing skills, etc. When walking,  people in cities interact with each other (Dimitrova, 2005) and learn to be responsive to others’ behaviour on the streets (Ingold, 2004). Walking in cities also offers opportunities for unplanned encounters with strangers and otherness (Bauman, 2000) which could be an important factor for understanding and accepting otherness. All these skills help people to live in a city, to enjoy and participate, to explore and observe, to interact and constitute the diverse public life.

Walking has numerous  economic benefits too. It is the cheapest and most accessible transportation mode which means that a city providing walkable environment creates opportunity for just and equal access to public spaces to its citizens and visitors regardless of their social status. Furthermore, people who are able to and choose to walk for most of their daily trips reduce their personal transportation costs. Walkable urban environments, which are often found in city centres, are the ones preferred by the “new economies” – creative and knowledge-based economies. They, on the other hand, attract young and innovative people.* Tourists are also attracted by these central locations as they want to get close to the local culture and public life which unfold in streets, plazas, cafes and restaurants. Walkable urban areas are associated with higher and increasing real estate prices and higher investment returns (Pivo & Fisher, 2011).

Walking on focus

Before the Industrial Revolution the urban environment has been naturally shaped around pedestrian’s needs and abilities. The human scale of urban development was, however, highly neglected as a result of the technological, social and economic changes in the cities during the 20th century and under the influence of modernist and technocratic ideas. Technology and machines conquered the cities and established the dominance of big scales and fast speed in many aspects of people’s lives – space, buildings, dwellings, mobility, food, etc. The automobile was admired for the illusionary freedom, speed and comfort it gave to people and became a desired and dominant mode of transportation in cities. Walking and biking in cities were seen as outdated, mundane, and belonging to lower social classes (Hodgson, 2012; Litman, 2003). Thus, moving in cities on foot was downgraded, its presence in the urban environment faded away and it was neglected in many urban planning and design projects until the end of the 20th century (Southworth, 2005) which often prioritised motorised transportation and limited pedestrian movement to areas defined by the experts.

Aiming to compensate the deprivation of pedestrians and fully in the sense of modernist ideas where the strict division between motorised and pedestrian movement is a must, pedestrian-only zones started to appear in cities. The trend for designing pedestrian-only zones in city centres, completely free of automobiles, was initiated in the 1950s in the USA and Western Europe and in the 1960s in Bulgaria.* The good intentions behind such projects were for the creation of “liveliness in pleasant and peaceful environment” (Dimitrova, 2005, p. 95) and many indeed achieved  this. However, in the context of the technocratic thinking at the time, especially amongst the transport engineers engaged with the design and development of urban transport and mobility infrastructure, there were certain negative consequences affecting the street space and pedestrians In the city at large. Such pedestrian zones in Bulgaria were recommended and developed in “shopping centres, school and university campuses, recreational areas, entrances to beaches, stations, etc. … the old main city square and the old shopping street” (Todorov, 1979, p. 228). Walking was thus not seen as equal to the motorised transportation means of mobility in the whole city, but was rather limited to a recreational and shopping activity in specifically designated areas. Planning urban environments aiming for “physical, psychological and visual separation of the pedestrian from the mechanical transportation means” (Velev, 1979, p. 31) had a negative influence on the traditional vitality of street spaces. The pedestrian-friendly and human-scale urban streets previously full of a diverse and vibrant public life were turned into mere transportation and service roads (Lefebvre, 1995; Southworth, 2005). It was considered that walking “will take care of itself” (Litman, 2003, p. 4) which was supported by travel surveys serving planning and design decisions that failed to account for non-motorised everyday travels (Litman, 2003) and the limited data on pedestrian numbers (Gehl Architects, n.d.), behaviour and needs (Schwartz & Porter, 2000). As a result, even today walking still remains largely invisible in statistics and planning and design decisions.

In the beginning of 1960s, as a reaction to the abovementioned processes, there was a gradual shift in the field of urban studies towards people-oriented, human-scale and context-sensitive planning and design. Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte and Jan Gehl were among the significant scholars who appealed for change in the established technocratic approaches and had a strong influence over contemporary urban theory and practice. They brought attention towards the human scale and the need for decision-making and urban environment development based on people’s behaviour and experience, and not vice versa. Jane Jacobs stood against the big highways dividing and destroying some of the most lively neighbourhoods in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. She talked about the importance that cities sustain the diverse street life and summarized the specific factors defining a successfully working neighbourhood (Jacobs, 1961). At the same time William H. Whyte started observing people in public spaces and discovered interconnections between human behaviour and public space design (Whyte, 1980). Simultaneously in Europe Jan Gehl focused his attention toward studying public life and people’s behaviour in public spaces and especially in streets (Gehl, 1987). The Public Space Public Life Survey methodology developed by Gehl and his team has been implemented in many cities as a basis for formulating recommendations for liveable and pedestrian-friendly urban spaces.

The impossible walking in Sofia. Or why do we end up with an opposition between ‘cars’ and ‘pedestrians’?

Different concepts for establishing pedestrian zones in the city centre are periodically appearing in Sofia’s development. Currently Malko Tarnovo St and parts of Pirotska St, Dyakon Ignatiy St, Ivan Vazov St, Slavyanska St, Paris St, and Vitosha Blvd (since 2006) are pedestrianised. Most of Graf Ignatiev St is closed for cars and it functions as a shared street for pedestrians, cyclists and trams. These streets are, however, just few examples of urban environment elements supporting Sofia’s transformation into a pedestrian-friendly city.

There are many examples of planning decisions and public investments prioritising cars in opposition to pedestrians in the contemporary development of Sofia. Prioritising private car transportation in urban policies means priority for car-oriented infrastructure in public investments. This decreases the pedestrian, cycling and public transport infrastructure investments. As a result, the experience of people moving in their private cars is fast and (illusory) pleasant, while the one of the pedestrian, the cyclist, the public transport user is unpleasant and inconvenient.

Among the first projects to attract attention and disapproval were big infrastructural projects –  some already completed, some still under construction. One such example is the Andrey Saharov Blvd and Andrey Lyapchev Blvd two-levelled interchange in Mladost housing estate which was completed in 2012. The presence and convenience of the pedestrian is neglected by the narrow footpaths covered with street light polls and fire hydrants leaving minimum space for pedestrians and making the passage of prams and wheelchair users almost impossible (24 Hours, 2012; Nacheva, 2012).   

Another big project, Sofia Integrated Urban Transport Project which has been under development since 2011 in stages, is focusing only on the motorised public transport and therefore prioritises motorised mobility over the non-motorised one. This happens by granting automobiles priority in “boulevards with more intensive [car] traffic” (Darik News Sofia, 2015) and by installing pedestrian buttons, in some cases on crossings with busy pedestrian traffic (e.g. the crossings on St. Nedelya Square, Alabin St and Vitosha Blvd, Sofia Seminary) which turns them into an unnecessary and illogical investment. In the project’s description, they are hidden under the ambiguous and laconic name “Intelligent traffic system”. The button system often prolongs pedestrians’ waiting time on traffic lights and makes their movement slower, more unpleasant and disrupted (hence the buttons are referred to as “nonsense” even in the media (Gigova, 2016)). This shows that walking has not been a priority for the City Council.* An official publication of the integrated urban transport project with information about the undertaken analysis and the corresponding actions has not been published as of October 2016. Therefore detailed information about the provided measures is not publicly accessible. The information available in the Stakeholder Engagement Report (Povvik, 2011) and via its communication and information channels is unsatisfying. The requirements for information disclosure are only partially implemented (e.g. the designated monthly progress reports on all project components are not found on the provided websites) (Povvik, 2011, p. 15).

It is not only a matter of a physical distribution of space between people and cars. The high number of cars means higher noise and air and environment pollution rates (RIEW-Sofia, 2011). According to a report by the Regional Inspection of Environment and Waters the average annual fine particles concentration in 2011 regarding PM10 was 66,31 µg/m3 with 40 µg/m3 limit value (RIEW-Sofia, 2011) which is mainly due to the motorised traffic*. The report states that “[a]utomobile transportation is the source of the highest rates of air pollution – 57% of the NOx total emissions, 93% of the CO emissions, 70% of the СО2 emissions, 83% of the N2O, which calls for a special attention to the traffic issue in Sofia” (RIEW-Sofia, 2011, p. 32). Yet, the winning entries for Zones 1 and 3* of the competition for Construction, regeneration and renewal of public spaces in the city centre of Sofia in 2013-2014 are projects that are not decreasing but rather increasing the car traffic in the city centre. In zone 1 this is done through the expansion of the space designated for cars by taking out space from pedestrians:

This happens in the most painless way as the road surface is widened only by 90 cm at the expense of the wide footpaths and thus Evlogii Georgiev Blvd turns from two into three lanes in its busiest part. The traffic on Friendship Bridge is improved by adding one more lane on Evlogii Georgiev Blvd in front of Hristo Botev technical high school … 12 parallel parking spaces are designated in front of the residential buildings between Graf Ignatiev St and Gen. Parensov St.*

The winning entry for zone 3 proposed the construction of a tunnel under Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd. This approach actually stimulates the through traffic in the city centre and endangers the archaeological heritage in this part of Sofia. The zone 3 project is currently suspended and the project files are not available on the Architecture and Urban Planning Department website. The zone 1 project still does not have a planning permission. This situation provides an opportunity to rethink and change the projects so that they can better reflect  the contemporary needs and trends in the development of city centres of large cities and urban mobility.


Is walking possible in Sofia’s city centre?

Walking in cities like Sofia, despite the aforementioned challenges, is quite possible. Like many old European cities Sofia has been developed around pedestrian’s needs and abilities which partially defines its cultural and spatial identity (Dimitrova, 2005, 2010). This makes Sofia’s central area easily walkable in terms of distances and connectedness of the street network.

Another beneficial factor, which is inherited from the traditionally pedestrian character of Sofia’s historical development, is the presence of mixed uses. They attract people and stimulate walking in the city* [*For research on urban design qualities related to walkability see Cervero et al. 2009; Cervero and Kockelman 1997; Ewing et al. 2006; Ewing and Handy 2009. Such studies are undertaken for other cities and in the current article are related to Sofia’s urban design qualities.]. The mixture between residential, office, industrial, educational, cultural, administrative, tourist, commercial and other buildings in a 20-minute walking catchment (approx. 1.5 km depending on personal abilities) together with regular and convenient public transport services significantly increases people’s daily walking and cycling rates and decreases the need for using private cars.

Additional support for Sofia’s walkability is the well-developed public transport network inherited from the Socialist period (when the number of private cars was significantly lower than today), together with the subway and the renewed bus, trolleybus and tram fleet.

All these urban design qualities, however, need the support of relevant infrastructure. In many cases Sofia needs high quality pedestrian spaces (footpaths, streets, crossings, etc.), good maintenance, accessibility for groups with specific requirements (pram and wheelchair users, aged people, children, etc.). Sofia needs to show more consideration for pedestrians as well as for the possibility and necessity for shared co-existence of all means of transportation, and yet by placing the right priorities.


Walking is not a simple act of going on foot and the pedestrian is an important creator of and actor in public life. Indeed cities developed around the pedestrian are cities that increase the possibilities and welcome everyone to enjoy and participate, to perceive and observe, to engage and create the diverse public life.

Today there is already a growing amount of research and literature in the planning and design field, highlighting the importance of walking in cities for variety of reasons and studying the complexity and multiplicity of measures and decisions determining whether a city could be developed into a walkable one. Walking has become one of the global topics and a part of many cities’ strategies and plans. Yet, the challenge of achieving more pedestrian-friendly cities in practice still remains. And for Sofia the challenge for its current and future development is related not only to embracing contemporary trends and approaches, but to preserving valuable local cultural and spatial qualities developed around and due to the city’s walking tradition. These two aspects need to be part of a consistent and comprehensive policy providing for walkable urban environment which is an important element of a more complex policy for developing a liveable city.


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Silvia Chakarova is an urban scholar and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy in Sofia. Her doctoral thesis is looking at walking in large cities and possibilities of fostering it through urban planning.

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