Obesity rates are growing in North America. While high-calorie, low-nutrient foods may be partially to blame, sedentary lifestyles are becoming an increasing concern. Technology has made it much easier to stay connected from the comfort of our chairs. And in many communities, driving is more convenient than other forms of active transportation.
On a city- or nation-wide scale, however, city planners and landscape architects can shape our community experience to encourage and reinforce active lifestyles. Here, we'll look at a range of active design guidelines for walkable pedestrian landscapes.
What is active design?
According to the Center for Active Design, "Active Design is an approach to the development of buildings, streets, and neighborhoods that uses architecture and urban planning to make daily physical activity and healthy foods more accessible and inviting."
Active design guidelines stress the importance of healthier lifestyles. Before we get into the details, here's a look at why active design has become top-of-mind for many urban planners and community designers.
You can also read about more general principles of landscape design.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- more than a third of American adults are obese
- 17 percent of children and adolescents, aged 2 to 19, are obese
These figures have increased by alarming proportions over the past several decades—to the point where obesity has become a major health risk.
Obesity is the cause of an estimated 300,000 deaths per year in the United States. It puts individuals at risk of more than 30 chronic health conditions, including high cholesterol, hypertension, heart disease, degenerative joint disease, respiratory conditions and numerous cancers. And, it's been linked to a more-than doubled increase in diabetes rates in America—among both children and adults. In 2012, an estimated 29.1 million Americans had diabetes.
Calorie intake is a major factor for obesity. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that American calorie consumption increased by almost 20 percent between 1983 and 2000. The Clinical Diabetes Journal reports that, overall, American adults eat an average of 500 to 800 more calories than needed.
Open spaces invite foot traffic
While calorie inputs affect weight gain, so does a lack of calorie outputs. These days, work and leisure activities involve less physical activity. The Internet and mobile technologies have made it much easier to reach vast audiences with little more than a keyboard or touch screen. Digital environments—through streamed media and video games—are also replacing real-life experiences.
Technology isn't the only thing that's changed, though. So has our environment, which has evolved much since our days roaming arid grasslands in the hunt for migrating wildebeests. Our streetscapes prioritize vehicles for even the shortest trips to the grocery store. At destinations, parking is arranged to be as close and convenient as possible. Inside buildings, elevators and escalators are standard for moving us between floors.
This isn't to say that these were bad designs. But in dealing with the realities of the 21st century, organizations like the Center for Active Design are looking for ways to advance our urban landscapes to encourage more physical activity.
It's important to note that active design guidelines stress the value of small, incremental lifestyle changes. Numerous studies have shown the health benefits of regular, vigorous physical activity—but the little things may have the biggest impacts on our overall health and well-being. In other words, we don't need to run marathons to be healthy.
Small steps, big impact
Regular physical activity is important for maintaining a healthy weight. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity every week. Consider that "moderate-intensity exercise" includes brisk walking, and suddenly, a trip to the grocery becomes part of a more active lifestyle.
Regular walking can be one of the most beneficial activities everyday Americans can adopt to improve health. Americans gain an average of 2.2 pounds per year throughout middle age—but walking 35 minutes per day can help stave this off. Additionally, regular, brisk walking has been shown to:
- Help maintain a healthy body weight
- Prevent and manage chronic health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes
- Improve bone health
- Improve mood
- Improve balance and coordination
In not so many words, supporting pedestrianism in our communities can be a great way to improve general public health.
Regular stair-climbing is also a key goal for active design. Easily made a part of everyday urban recreation, stair-climbing is a more vigorous means of physical activity. Not only does it burn more calories, but it can also increase bone density, improve levels of good cholesterol and improve leg fitness.
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Design for walkability
If we want to encourage walking, we need to know what makes people walk. New York City's Active Design Guidelines references a study that identified five design qualities "critical to a good walking environment":
- Imageability is the quality of a place that makes it distinct, recognizable, and memorable. A place has high imageability when specific physical elements and their arrangement capture attention, evoke feelings, and create a lasting impression.
- Enclosure refers to the degree to which streets and other public spaces are visually defined by buildings, walls, trees, and other vertical elements.
- Human scale refers to a size, texture, and articulation of physical elements that match the size and proportions of humans and, equally important, correspond to the speed at which humans walk.
- Transparency refers to the degree to which people can see or perceive objects and activity—especially human activity—beyond the edge of a street.
- Complexity refers to the visual richness of a place. The complexity of a place depends on the variety of the physical environment.
Effective traffic calming can also be a key strategy to ensuring safe walking environments.
What does this look like at the community level? Let's look at both large-scale, city-wide planning and small-scale site design.
Active streets and community planning
Pedestrian bridge connects urban areas
On a large scale, infrastructure can encourage active transportation in the form of walking, running and cycling. This can be achieved by increasing density (i.e. the walking distance between destinations) and improving the design and diversity of neighborhoods (i.e. the walking experience and the destinations themselves).
Increased density can be associated with smaller living spaces, but it also means shorter walking distances between destinations. People are more inclined to walk if it's the most accessible and convenient means to getting where they need to go. We visit grocery stores, news and entertainment hubs, green spaces and general goods and service providers on a daily basis. Access to healthy foods is also a prime component to effective active design—encouraging not only healthy activities but also healthy eating as well.
Public transit also encourages walking. Riders may be inactive while on the bus or train, but getting to and from the station or bus stop encourages walking.
Ultimately, when designing for active streets and community recreation, it's important to create a destination-rich environment.
Active site design: Small-scale design within larger communities
When it comes to smaller-scale projects within a larger community, architects and designers can look for ways to reinforce, complement or even initiate local design principles.
Open spaces attract regular foot traffic
Going back to the design qualities that are "critical to a good walking environment," user-oriented design is key. People look to interesting designs to draw their attention, whether it be a community art piece or an inviting vantage point. Texture and color can also make areas stand out and/or complement their surroundings. Giving users plenty to see—and strong sightlines to see them—are crucial to communicating a site's possibilities.
Arrangement can also affect experience. It can mean the difference between a breath of exhaust in the midst of a noisy traffic environment and a breath of fresh air amidst a canopy of surrounding shade trees. Here's a look at a few guidelines to reinforce effective active design.
Create a destination
There are a number of ways to make a location more attractive to visitors. Aside from proximity, basic amenities such as water fountains, news boxes and public seating can encourage and attract visits. Open spaces in general allow people to relax and interact with others. And, as more people use a space, the more it becomes a destination for people-watching and/or attracting the attention of others.
Individual sites can reinforce the design of their surrounding communities by recognizing where people come from and where they need to go. Access to parking is a traditional design requirement for new site developments, but access to transit is becoming more of a focus. We see building entrances and onsite pathways designed with better orientation and attention to transit routes. These routes may require supporting elements such as crosswalks, protected areas and lighting.
For denser areas with heavy foot traffic, offering wayfinding elements can be a way to improve walking experiences within a broader community. Cities are typically designed to help drivers find their way—directing them to major highways, airport routes, lane cues, etc. More often than not, pedestrians are left to their own devices to find their own routes.
Providing a choice-rich environment can be a means for creating a more diverse, or complex, stage for activity and interaction. Stairs can provide more intense physical activity, but on their own, can be intimidating and repel users. To encourage stair use, proximity and connectivity are again key incentives. If stairs are the quickest, most convenient means to getting to a destination, people will use them.
Staircase design can also affect usability. Riser and tread dimensions can look less inviting when they present a steep obstacle to climb. More gradual inclines with regular intermittent landings are more inviting. Tread textures and well-placed handrails also help ensure safe access.
Stairs may also offer a vantage point for users. The opportunity to see a well-designed site from a higher level might be enough to encourage users to step up on their own.
Support bike use
Cycling is becoming a more prominent means for active transportation and recreation, and cities are making an effort to accommodate riders with improved infrastructure. These days, providing protected areas for bike parking is a common requisite for effective site design.
Protected spaces: The importance of safe walking environments
Bollards establish pedestrian landscapes for active lifestyles
According to a national survey, one third of Americans report not taking a walking trip in the past week. A major factor is safety—and how vulnerable people feel due to a lack of proper infrastructure—including a lack of walking areas, safe crosswalks and poor lighting. In other words, to encourage more walking as an active form of transportation, we need to find ways to make our public spaces more pedestrian-oriented.
The arrangement and design of public spaces are key considerations for would-be walkers, but so are local amenities and site furnishings. Regular access to public seating is a means to ensuring places for rest, personal enjoyment and taking in surroundings. Bollards, as well as a range of other furnishings, also provide the means to protecting walkable areas from vehicle intrusions.
- American Diabetes Association. "Statistics About Diabetes." American Diabetes Association website.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Adult Obesity Facts." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
- Food Research & Action Center. "Obesity in the U.S." Food Research & Action Center website.
- Harvard Men's Health Watch. "Walking: Your steps to health." Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School.
- Marks, Jennifer B. "Obesity in America: It's Getting Worse." American Diabetes Assocation: Clinical Diabetes website.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. "Walking: Trim your waistline, improve your health." Mayo Clinic.
- McGill Office of the Vice-Principal, Administration and Finance. "Benefits of Stair Climbing." McGill website.
- New York City. Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design. City of New York: 2010.
- New York City. Active Design: Shaping the Sidewalk Experience. City of New York: 2013.
- Obesity Society. "What is Obesity?" Obesity Society website.
- PublicHealth. "Why Are Americans Obese?" PublicHealth website.
- United States Department of Agriculture. "Chapter 2: Profiling Food Consumption in America." Agriculture Fact Book 2001-2002.
- Active design supports walkability: Hipnos, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr
- Open spaces invite foot traffic: Pedro Ribeiro Simões, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr
- Pedestrian bridges connect urban areas: Thank you for visiting my page's photostream, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr
- Protected open spaces attract foot traffic: Moyan Brenn, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr