Communities

The first rule of livable cities: pedestrians first

For someone who is in such a hurry to change cities, Gil Penalosa talks a lot about going slow. That’s because for the executive director of 8-80 Cities it all starts with making cities and residential neighborhoods safe for pedestrians. RELATED LINKS

Want to build a bikeable city? Focus on those who don’t bike” by Andrew Sherry on Knight Blog (10/10/14)

“Creating a more connected Charlotte, N.C.” by Susan Patterson (09/09/14)

“Does placemaking help democracy?” by Andrew Sherry on Knight blog (08/29/14)

“Every single trip begins with walking,” said Penalosa, who has advised cities in the Americas, Europe and Asia. Most recently, he led a group of 34 civic innovators from nine U.S. cities on a study tour to Copenhagen, Denmark, and Malmo, Sweden.

Exploring the city on foot and by bike, the group observed firsthand several key tactics for making cities walkable:

  • Slow traffic in cities and residential neighborhoods to 20 mph.
  • Build crosswalks at curb height to provide continuity for pedestrians and raise awareness for cars.
  • Give pedestrians the walk signal six to seven seconds before the light turns green to make them visible to turning cars.
  • Build pedestrian islands on arterial roads, for safe crossing and aesthetics.
  • Provide good lighting to make people feel safe.
  • Encourage each block to have multiple establishments, instead of long facades, to keep the streetscape friendly and interesting.
  • Plan to have all basic needs – grocery store, drug store, etc. – within a 10-minute walk of housing.

A car, with one occupant is the most inefficient use of a street. But it’s not just about efficiency. Human beings enjoy being places where they feel safe, can be social, can eat, drink and shop, and that’s a good reason to create those places.

“Part of it is safety, and part of it is enjoyment,” Penalosa said.

Copenhagen’s streets were not always about enjoyment. Like most American cities, they were about cars and commuting in the 1970s. Cobblestone city squares were used as parking lots.

Helle Søholt, founding partner and CEO of Gehl Architects, said many people were skeptical about creating walkable streets and space for outdoor cafés in a Nordic capital, saying that was only appropriate for warm, southern Europe. But on a blustery, late-summer day, Copenhagen’s café tables were packed.

“The culture changed,” said Søholt, whose firm was instrumental in Copenhagen’s transformation and has built a worldwide practice on the principle that city planning and design should put people first.

One of the ways to put people first, she said, is to count them. When firm founder Jan Gehl counted pedestrian traffic in Copenhagen, it injected new data into city planning dominated by car traffic and parking, and changed the conversation.

“Measure what matters to you,” said Søholt, whose firm launches projects with detailed surveys, with data gathered from questions and observation.

For merchants, the measurement that matters is business. Both Gehl and 8-80 have encountered resistance to walkable streets from shop owners who fear they will lose business if customers can’t drive up and load their cars. They cite examples of the opposite occurring, and nearby merchants becoming interested in their streets joining the carless grid.

Parks and public places

For Penalosa, walkable streets are about more than walking. With parks and squares, they make up a web of public spaces he sees as vital to the fabric of a city. Some of the ideas the study tour encountered:

  • It’s in people’s nature to like to socialize. And having spaces for engagement probably helps democracy.
  • If people work within walking distance of their homes, data shows they will be more active, which means healthier.
  • Cities need different sizes of parks: small ones, where neighbors can meet, and which keep families in the city; larger ones, for sports; and large outdoor nature areas for “contemplative” activities such as canoeing.
  • Parks are great equalizers; they are the same for the poor as for the rich. And they are more important for those with less, who have few options outside of work.
  • Malmo has thematic playgrounds dotting the city; one theme might be “fairy tale,” the other “sunny.” Parents like to take their kids to different parks, so they end up meeting people from different socioeconomic groups.
  • Skateparks can work; build them for a range of levels. Different ages will naturally use them at different times.
  • Make places for parents to watch, not just kids to play, so neighbors will stay around and get to know each other.
  • Management and programming of parks is just as important as building them; what activities do you have to engage the community, the local elementary school, a local religious group, day, night, summer, winter?
  • It’s often easier to get millions to build a park than thousands to manage it.

Knight Foundation is interested in the work of 8-80 Cities and Gehl Architects because making cities more livable is a way to attract and retain talent, create economic opportunity, and provide means of engagement, key drivers of city success. Currently, the foundation is running the Knight Cities Challenge to uncover ideas that harness those elements.

Penalosa notes that investing in the features that make cities livable costs less than building new infrastructure for cars. Nonetheless, cities have to have priorities, and for him the priority is clear: “Every city should have a law. Pedestrians first.”

Andrew Sherry is vice president of communications at Knight Foundation.

What’s your best idea to make cities more successful? The Knight Cities Challenge offers applicants a chance to share in $5 million by focusing on that question. The contest will test the most innovative ideas in talent, opportunity and engagement in one or more of 26 Knight Foundation communities. The challenge is open for entries through 5 p.m. Eastern Time Nov. 14, 2014. Apply at KnightCities.org. Pedestrians in Copenhagen.