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Active Design Guidelines for Walkable Communities

December 23, 2015

Guidelines for building active spaces

Urban design strategies can greatly affect user activities. On a city- or nation-wide scale, active design—or the lack thereof—can have lasting impacts on the overall health and well-being of general populations.

As curators of outdoor spaces, city planners and landscape architects shape not only our community experience, but the opportunities for engaging in more healthful lifestyles. Here, we'll look at a range of active design guidelines that encourage walkable pedestrian landscapes.

Pedestrian bridge connects urban areas (credit: <a href=””>davebloggs007</a>)
Pedestrian bridge connects urban areas (credit: davebloggs007)

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."

In other words, active design guidelines stress the importance of healthier lifestyles—and seek to achieve them by reimagining our physical environments. In particular, encouraging more active lifestyles could be a way to mitigate ballooning obesity rates in the United States. But, when it comes to urban planning and community design, what activities should we prioritize among users? What makes physical options more attractive? We'll look to answer these questions—but first, a look at some of the numbers.

You can also read about more general principles of landscape design.

Obesity epidemic

Active design aims to reduce American obesity rates

Obesity graphic: CDC

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than a third of American adults are obese. Among children and adolescents aged 2 to 19, 17 percent are obese. These figures have increased by alarming proportions over the past several decades—to the point where authorities now list obesity as one of the major health risks affecting Americans.

Obesity is the cause of an estimated 300,000 deaths per year in the United States—and 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. But, perhaps the most significant concern is that it's been linked to a more-than doubled increase in diabetes rates in America—among both children and adults—amounting to an estimated 29.1 million Americans with diabetes in 2012.

Calorie intake is a major cause of obesity. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that American calorie consumption increased by almost 20 percent between 1983 and 2000—much of which is accounted for in meat, added fats and grain consumption. Sugars consumed through sodas and energy drinks are also a major contributor. The Clinical Diabetes Journal reports that, overall, American adults eat an average of 500 to 800 more calories than are required to maintain a healthy weight.

Sedentary communities

While calorie inputs affect weight gain, calorie outputs are also a major factor. These days, people engage in less physical activity at work and in their own personal leisure time. With the developments in communications technologies, it's become so 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.

Lifestyles in the physical world have also become less active. We've 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—and at destinations, parking is arranged to be as close and convenient as possible. Inside buildings, elevators and escalators have become standard for moving 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 evolve the design of our urban landscapes. This means finding ways to design spaces that 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, people don't need to run marathons to achieve healthier weights.

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" can include brisk walking, and suddenly, a trip to the grocery becomes a means to a more active lifestyle.

Regular walking can be one of the most beneficial activities everyday Americans can adopt to improve their 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.

Design for walkability

If we want to encouraging walking, we need to know what improves walkability. 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

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 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.

Transit accommodation is another key strategy that encourages walking. Riders may be inactive while on the bus or train, but getting to and from the station or bus stop typically requires walking.

Ultimately, when designing for more active streets and community recreation, it's important to provide a destination-rich environment. Arranging these in a localized, comfortable walkable environment can make walking a more convenient and attractive option over driving.

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.

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. Attention to the spaces themselves, including textures and colors 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.

The arrangement of a space can also affect user experience. Proximity of roads and surrounding furnishings 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.

Connect 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 while on the road—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.

Provide options

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 for users. 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 the unique value of 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

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.

Company: Reliance Foundry Co. Ltd.

Of: Bryce Tarling




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