Sunday, September 20, 2009

City Design: People First

Imagine the city you'd like to live in. Is it lively? Attractive? Safe? Sustainable? Healthy? Of course it is. Everybody wants these qualities in their city, but as you can see from the cities we actually live in, we've forgotten how make them this way.

Cities are habitat for people, so the city should be designed to support the people. These 'people' are human beings who naturally walk upright at about five km/h.

Europeans figured this out. Their tight city designs are murder to drive in, look jumbled from the air, but they are perfectly comfortable as a pedestrian. They had an advantage us North Americans didn't. They were built before the automobile overwhelmed city planning.

Once city-designers started designing for the car, a 110+ km/h ton of steel instead of the five km/h person, the cities lost their charm. Cars demand lots of space and engineering. Pedestrians can endure almost anything, but it doesn't mean they thrive.

If you have any doubts about whether cars or pedestrians are more important, ask yourself whether you'd rather lose your ability to drive or your ability to walk.

For a public space to thrive, it needs to be comfortable for pedestrians. The vast amount of space devoted to the roads relative to the tiny spaces for people reinforce the pedestrian's position as a second class citizen.

Even with well designed cities — cities where things are closer, there will be times when we need to go farther or faster. Rather than the loud, wide, polluting car, use the quiet, narrow, healthy bicycle.

Fixing this will require patience - the road/car system is already established, but we shouldn't build any new car-centric developments. This oil boom is a flash in the pan when you take the long view, and if we want our cities to remain useful, we'd best make them walkable.

If you're developing, it's smart business to design for people instead of cars. With high property values and more units per acre you can make more money.

If you're a city, tight pedestrian centred design will save you money in road maintenance, as well as making your transit system more viable.

If you're a business selling things to people, you want pedestrians walking by your store. People don't shop from their cars.

As a citizen, you get the biggest bang, because you get to live in a vibrant neighbourhood. You can reap the health benefits of walking to access to everything you need. You get the vibrant city you want by designing it for people first.

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