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Can Cities Make Us Healthy? (A Response)

Photo courtesy of Claudio.

In my last post on the connection between cities and health I outlined what I see as both an opportunity and a challenge around healthy cities. Health benefits from the increased walking and cycling that urban areas can promote have been well documented. Policy makers, developers and designers are taking this to heart in some really exciting ways.

The challenge remains that much of our existing urban fabric, particularly newer cities and suburbs built in the last 50 years or so, were designed with a different set of intentions. Cars were the framework around which we built – and now we’re facing the challenge of converting our car-centric cities to healthy places that reprioritize the person over the car. “Transit-oriented developments,” “complete streets” (streets designed “to enable safe access for all users, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transportation ”), and other progressive urban design and planning strategies are attempts to refocus our development efforts towards more healthy and productive aims.

We’re making progress. According to the Complete Streets Atlas, an online tool from the National Complete Streets Coalition, in total “330 regional and local jurisdictions, 26 states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia have adopted [complete streets] policies or have made written commitment to do so.”

Responding to my call for positive examples beyond the standard case stories (New York or Portland, for instance), I was contacted by Malisa Mccreedy, a transportation planner from Charlotte, North Carolina. She pointed me to work that the city is pursuing through its Urban Street Design Guidelines (USDG) to implement complete street policies and evolve its transportation network, as well as a link to a study that demonstrates the positive health impact of a new light rail line. She also pointed to “Get Active Orlando,” a project with a goal to “incorporate active living considerations” into downtown Orlando.

These efforts are exciting, in particular because they work to address particularly challenging urban environments and populations with an ingrained culture of driving. To learn more, I asked Malisa to elaborate on her experience and the specific challenges facing newer cities:

Communities have been designed over time to give preference to motor vehi¬cles and to make physically active transportation difficult if not impossible. Biking and/or walking aren’t feasible in many cities, particularly the high growth areas of the last 30 years. Some of the specific challenges that cities built in the second half of the 20th century face: homogeneous land uses, disconnected street networks, low densities, superblocks, poor design (i.e. garages at the front of a house), dead end streets/cul-de-sacs, gated entrances to subdivisions with only one entrance for ingress and egress. Transportation modes other than vehicle were provided for as an afterthought or not at all. The challenges are complex not only from an infrastructure perspective, but a community viewpoint.

There are millions of Americans who have grown up only knowing an auto-dominated way of life. Going back to retrofit suburban-type development is often times met with resistance from a vocal segment of the public that doesn’t want streets connected, sidewalks in their front yard, mixed land uses, public transportation or bike lanes “no one ever uses.” The desire for active transportation modes, while gaining wider acceptance, can be a painful transition. Educating the general public, leaders, and elected officials on the relevance of why changes are necessary has gained momentum in recent years due to the efforts of those in the public health and planning professions. Published studies make the connection between our modern “epidemics” of obesity, high-blood pressure, and diabetes with an over-reliance on automobiles. In many communities, residents are forced to drive to meet their daily needs because critical services and destinations – home, school, work, medical care and shopping – are too far apart to access on foot. Failing to provide a variety of transportation options impacts the people who need options the most: seniors, children and low-income residents.

In the US, perspectives like this are extremely important since much of the urban development to come will involve adapting and evolving existing cities to be healthier and more sustainable. America is already a largely urban nation – our problem is making our cities better.

Malisa points out a particular challenge – this isn’t just about infrastructure, it’s also about community. A recent Atlantic Cities post references a new book “Making Transit Fun!” and speculates on addressing just this problem. Providing the infrastructure is one thing; making public transit “sexy” is a whole other challenge.

Like so many principles of good urban planning, we can look to the past for precedent while creating solutions for the future. Train stations like Union Station in Washington, DC or Grand Central in New York reflect an era when transportation was celebrated. And if you’ve ever taken the metro in Moscow, it’s an amazing example of public transportation with sex appeal. The stations are so beautiful they’re considered a tourist attraction in their own right. That’s something worth thinking about.

Tim Pittman
Tim Pittman is a member of Gensler’s research team and holds a master's degree in City Design and Social Science from the London School of Economics. His passion for cities stems from the belief that great design has a positive impact on the human experience and that the way we design our cities today will have a profound impact on how we inhabit and experience them tomorrow. Contact him at tim_pittman@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (1)

it deppends what kind of cities,because if the citiies have more trees and clean maybe it can make us healtty and thiers no pullotion,and away from factories.
08.14.2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnna Leon

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