Hitting the ground walking: how planners can create more walkable cities, one step at a time

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In recent times, walking has been enlisted as one of the key weapons in the war on inactivity. Planners and policymakers have taken note of evidence highlighting the benefits of walking for health and wellbeing. Meanwhile, local and national governments have taken up the challenge of embedding walking into policy, strategy and guidance. There are now national walking strategies for England, Wales and Scotland, and from Belfast to Bristol local councils have published their own plans to get more people walking.

Travel trends and their costs

During the twentieth century, there was a shift from work involving physical labour to jobs of a more sedentary nature. In addition, the growth of suburbs and rising car ownership has contributed to a decline in people travelling on foot. At the same time, the attractions of television and home computers mean fewer people are spending their leisure time playing sports or taking part in outdoor activities.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has put the consequences of these trends into stark perspective:

“Sedentary lifestyles increase all causes of mortality, double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression and anxiety.”

  • Worldwide, around two million deaths a year are attributed to physical inactivity.
  • In the UK, physical activity contributes to one in six deaths, and costs £7.4 billion a year to business and wider society. It is the fourth largest cause of disease and disability in the UK.
  • In Scotland, inactivity contributes to over 2,500 deaths each year, costing the NHS £94.1m annually.

The benefits of walking

Efforts encouraging people to become more active have had mixed results, and there is now a recognition that turning the tide of physical activity may take decades to achieve. But there’s also a growing understanding that physical activity that can be built in to everyday life can be as effective as supervised exercise programmes. And, as we reported last week, the health benefits of walking can be demonstrated in unexpected ways, such as the emergence of the Pokémon Go game as an incentive to exercise.

A recent report from the Arup design and engineering firm highlights that walking is good for cities as well as for people. It details more than 50 ways in which the world can benefit from walkable cities, including:

  • Social benefits – health and wellbeing, safety, placemaking, social cohesion and equality.
  • Economic benefits – city attractiveness, urban regeneration, cost savings.
  • Environmental benefits – addressing air and noise pollution, improving liveability and transport efficiency.
  • Political benefits – leadership, urban governance, sustainable development and planning opportunities.

Making walkable places

Another key theme of the Arup report was the importance of planning for pedestrians:

“If we want cities to be more walkable, the way we design cities has to change. Walkable places are more compact, dense with mixed uses. Streets have to be well connected with more shade from sun and rain, green spaces, trees and public spaces. And, we must pay more attention to the quality of public spaces, not just providing quantity of walkable space.” Joanna Rowelle, Director at Arup

The report lists 40 actions that city leaders can consider to inform walking policy, strategy and design. Among the ideas:

  • Temporarily removing cars from a city can transform roads into public spaces, raise awareness around car dependency, reduce air pollution, and reveal the potential opportunities created by having more – and safer – spaces for people.
  • Financial incentives and disincentives, including subsidies and taxes like congestion charges, can be used to encourage behaviour change.
  • Use of shared spaces to create a pedestrian-oriented environment where people are aware of fellow road users.
  • Unused infrastructure – such as New York City’s High Line – offers major opportunities for facilitating safe and attractive pedestrian routes and activity spaces.
  • Urban regeneration creates the opportunity to redevelop small pieces of land into pocket parks or public spaces with a green character.
  • Rivers and waterways can be transformed from barriers into walking and cycling routes by creating green and accommodating waterfronts.

Best foot forward?

Many of the suggestions in the Arup report are not hard to implement, and needn’t be costly. But even when schemes have been enacted, they may face opposition.

Each weekend, for the past seven years, a busy thoroughfare in Bucharest has been cleared to create Via Sport – a safe space for leisure and sport. This summer, the city’s new mayor claimed Via Sport has been causing traffic problems. The scheme has now been closed for the foreseeable future.

Old instincts die hard. Those rethinking patterns and processes of urban design to stimulate walking (and cycling) will face a few bumps in the road. But the potential rewards will be great. As David Sim of Gehl Architects observes:

“The key strategy is about getting people to actually spend time out on the street. They become a part of the space, familiar with their neighbours, and are in tune with city life.”


Our previous blog posts on urban planning for pedestrians and cyclists include:

 

Increasing participation in sport and physical activity

by Stacey Dingwall

Our latest member briefing focuses on increasing participation in sport and physical activity in the UK, looking at successful examples of increasing activity and ways in which policymakers are trying to overcome the barriers to participation in sport and physical exercise. You can download the briefing for free from the Knowledge Exchange publications page.

Physical activity levels in the UK

Despite the longstanding and valued position in British society of sport, getting people of all ages involved in sport and physical activity has become increasingly challenging. While current UK guidelines for aerobic activity recommend that adults aged 19 and over should spend at least 150 minutes per week in moderately intensive physical activity, the latest statistics on physical activity from the British Heart Foundation indicate that:

  • Only 67% of men in England and Scotland report meeting recommended levels of physical activity, and only 59% in Northern Ireland and 37% in Wales;
  • Women are less active than men in all UK countries, with 58% reporting meeting recommended levels in Scotland, 55% in England, and 49% in Northern Ireland and 23% in Wales;
  • Physical activity levels vary by household income; in England in 2012, 76% of men in the highest income quintile reached recommended levels, compared to 55% of men in the lowest income quintile.

The implications of inactivity

Low levels of physical activity not only have health implications, but also economic – in the UK, inactivity has been estimated to cost the NHS £1.1billion (Allender, 2007) with indirect costs to society bringing this cost to a total of £8.2billion.

Government action

Our briefing highlights the range of policies and interventions implemented by the UK and devolved governments to try and increase participation in sport and physical activity among the population. These include the Department of Education’s £150m per year Primary PE and Sport Premium Fund; and Scotland’s sport strategy for children and young people, Giving Children and Young People a Sporting Chance.

Good practice – home and abroad

In addition, the briefing profiles successful interventions at the community level, such as Let’s Get Fizzical, a physical activity programme for young people delivered by StreetGames in collaboration with Birmingham City Council. International examples of good practice are also highlighted, including the Active Healthy Kids Canada programme and the North Karelia Project in Finland.


 

The Knowledge Exchange specialises in public and social policy. To get a flavour of the commentary it offers, please explore our publications page on the Knowledge Exchange website.

To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Planning healthy cities … integration is key

Image from Flickr user Sebastian Niedlich, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

Image from Flickr user Sebastian Niedlich, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

By Dorothy Laing

“The environment in which we live, work and spend leisure time – both the physical nature of places and the social environment of communities – has an enormous impact on our health and wellbeing. Health problems such as obesity, chronic heart disease, stress and mental health issues are intricately linked to the environments in which people live and work”. (RTPI, 2014)

Earlier this month the RTPI published Promoting healthy cities: Why planning is critical to a healthy urban future, the third in a series of Planning Horizons papers launched to mark the RTPI’s centenary. The report looks at how planning can help to create healthy cities – one of its main arguments being that health and wellbeing need to be at the core of city design and development.

With a growing number of people living in urban areas, and health problems such obesity and diabetes on the rise, planning for healthy cities is vital. And interest in the links between planning and urban health is nothing new.

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