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5 Ways Cities Can Become More Active (And No, You Won’t Have To Walk Everywhere)

Small changes make it more likely that urban residents will get away from their screens once in awhile.

From the way they design streets to the way they provide public transit, cities can do a lot to influence how active we are on a daily basis. If, for example, cities make cars the default way of getting around, it’s likely we’ll walk and cycle less, and that some of us at least will be less healthy.

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A new report from Designed to Move–a coalition that was founded by Nike and now includes more than 80 sports and health organizations–makes this point conclusively, laying out streams of evidence for the relationship between “active environments” and healthier populations. And, in fact, it even makes an economic claim: That cities are more productive and competitive when they make themselves “more active.” That’s because new bike lanes and walkways have been shown to spur retail trade, and because denser, walkable downtowns have been shown to produce more tax dollars than less dense environments. In total, the report cities 521 academic findings (mostly journal papers) from 17 countries. If nothing else, the report is a useful source of information for any wanting to promote active development.

It also includes a host of practical ideas for cities, including the following “quick wins”:

1: Keep parks open late. Phoenix saw a 55% reduction in youth crime after it opened basketball and other courts until 2 a.m. in the summer. In the winter, when it reverts to regular hours, crime rates went up again.

Flickr user Jeffrey Zeldman

2: Open schools to the public. “Making these tax-supported resources available to the public provides more opportunities for community members to get active,” the report says.

3: Reduce speed limits. Cutting vehicle speeds from 30 mph to 20 mph, as New York City has done, produces safer, more walkable environments, studies show.

4: Open the staircase. Enter most modern buildings and the elevator is the only way to get to the fifth floor. “Stairs are more than a fire escape. They’re a great, healthy way to get from one floor to another, but many buildings don’t require them to be opened up for daily use,” the report says.

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Flickr user Denise Cheng

5: Make it easier to close streets. Allowing neighbors to organize block parties helps foster play and brings communities together. The British city of Bristol, for example, allows people to file “Temporary Play Street Orders” online. “Families love the option and it’s helped to strengthen the city’s reputation as a playable city,” says the report.

In addition, Designed to Move also recommends cities put fitness equipment in parks, integrate cycling with public transit (e.g. allowing people to take bikes on trains), introduce “pocket parks” (small pieces of urban space turned over to recreation), and have more car-free streets. “Put simply, the research shows active cities are healthier, wealthier, safer, greener, and more cohesive. Not surprisingly, the people who live in them are happier,” it says.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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