Designing “Cities for People”

I was unable to attend the Jan Gehl lecture on January 24th, as I was off exploring another city – familiarizing myself with Seattle – which had been a much anticipated adventure.  I covered as much ground as I could in the two days I was there, visiting several neighbourhoods and finding interesting sites/sights in between.

Having learned about the lecture only days before my trip, I was faced with a difficult decision but knew in my heart I would have regretted postponing my first visit to Seattle.  That being said, I realize I missed a rare opportunity to be in the presence of a profoundly influential man.  Gehl’s book Life Between Buildings is a widely cited text that has inspired countless planners and architects, and inspired me to begin Pedestrian City.

Reviews of Gehl’s lecture reiterate his focus on designing “cities for people”, which happens to be the title of his new book.  He’s an advocate for human-scale design that accommodates a wide variety of users, interesting and engaging public spaces that encourage people to stay rather than simply pass through, and  infrastructure that encourages multi-modal and active transportation.

In June 2010, Gehl Architects and the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy  released a booklet called Our Cities Our Selves: 10 Principles for Transport in Urban Life.  Presenting case studies from around the world, the booklet examines transportation-related needs and concerns with a wide lens, highlighting the need for a paradigm shift when thinking about transportation planning, quality of life and the environment.  The key is to examine cities from an eye-level rather than a bird’s-eye view, and integrate alternative modes of transportation to a degree that decreases the need for cars and focuses on the human-scale.  In doing so it’s important to consider the needs of various life stages, from the toddler to seniors.  If neighbourhoods are accessible to these age groups, they’re inherently walkable by everyone.

With the City of Vancouver looking to establish a Pedestrian Advisory Committee before the elections in November, and hosting Walk 21 in October, Gehl’s visit couldn’t have been more timely.  I hope he has inspired more concrete action in truly making Vancouver a greener city.

Designing the Inclusive City

“Walkers are the indicator species for quality of life in our cities” – Rodney Tolley, Director Walk 21

A couple of weeks ago I participated in Walking the Talk – The Footprint for Active Transportation A Workshop and Learning Lab – a pre-conference workshop and shoulder event for the Gaining Ground Summit and precursor to Walk 21.

Speakers included the Directors of both Walk 21 and Green Communities Canada, representatives from HASTE: Hub for Action on School Transportation Emissions and the BC Ministry of Healthy Living and Sport.  The presentations and conversations focused on the importance of making our communities walkable, accessible and inclusive for everyone.

3 key demographic groups to be considered in the design of the inclusive city are:

Children – active transportation to school key in helping to reduce chronic disease in children and improving overall health, wellness and safety.

Generation Y/the millennials – having grown-up with the environmental movement, 2/3 of this generation want to live in walkable communities.

Baby boomers – require smart growth retrofitting to allow for ageing in place.

The current movement toward the inclusive or lifetime city has to focus on suburban nodes and retrofitting the suburbs.  This presents a huge opportunity to create outer edge communities with downtowns through a practice of redevelopment and re-inhabitation, including the adaptive reuse of former retail spaces.

It is necessary to look at practices of re-greening, rezoning, and re-purposing to increase compact use and connectivity to build denser, more walkable nodes without negatively affecting existing communities in the process.

Critical tools/steps to increase walkability include:

  • Speed reductions to 20 mph in residential zones (already done in London and NYC) negates the need for traffic calming and street redesign; fostering more activity by cyclists and walkers, other benefits will follow organically.
  • Walking school buses and other school travel planning initiatives connect communities and provide an opportunity to involve children in route planning.
  • Age-friendly communities support and enable older people to “age actively”, to live in security, enjoy good health and continue to participate fully in society.
  • Planning age-friendly and child/youth friendly communities essentially have the same requirements in terms of walkability.  If neighbourhoods are walkable by these user-groups, they are walkable by everyone.

After a morning of stimulating presentations and a lunchtime walk – mine was lead by local historian and author John Atkin – we broke into small groups to share ideas about how to achieve the 5C’s  necessary in designing “streets for people” (connectivity, comfort, convenience, conviviality, and conspicuousness).  We were asked to identify priorities to improve walkability through 1) actions in the physical environment, 2) behaviour change programs, and 3) changing “the culture”.  A lot of great ideas were generated and presented back to the entire group.

The most popular ideas from my group were: neighbourhood amenity mapping; creating living streets with public art and gardens; and complete sidewalks – on both sides of the street!  More great ideas can be found here.

The room was filled with walking and active transportation enthusiasts representing  BEST: Better Environmentally Sound Transportation, the Vancouver Public Space Network, Pedal, and Urban Thinkers to name a few.  Overall, it was a very inspiring day and I’m looking forward to the 2011 Walk 21 Conference, which is happening here in Vancouver next October!