Walkability, density, and mixed-use have become key terms in the conversation about designing our cities to promote healthy lifestyles. In an interview with behavioral psychologist, Dr. James Sallis of the University of California San Diego in The Globe and Mail, Sallis discusses how his research reveals key design elements that encourage physical activity. In the 20th century, the automobile and new ideals in urban planning radically changed the way in which cities were structured. Residential and commercial areas were divided and highways were built to criss-cross between them. Suburban sprawl rescued city dwellers from dense urban environments that had gained a reputation for being polluted and dangerous. In recent decades, planners, policy makers and environmentalists have noted how these seemingly healthy expansions have had an adverse affect on our personal health and the health of our built environment. Today, the conversation is heavily structured around how welcoming density, diversity and physical activity can help ameliorate the negative affects that decades of mid-century planning have had on health. Sallis describes how much of a psychological feat it is to change the adverse habits that have developed over the years and how design, in particular, can help encourage the change.
The steps being taken today are not groundbreaking; Jane Jacobs warned readers about the negative impacts of contemporary urban planning policies in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and describes the elements of design that cities are reinstating today. Like the myriad urban planning texts that have been published to date, Sallies enumerates the ways in which urban design can nudge people in the right direction: bike paths, access to public transportation, access to amenities within residential districts, safe sidewalks, and traffic calming measures are among them.
According to Sallis, though the methods that promote healthy cities have been established “whatever worked, only worked a little, on a few people, for a short time”. So the issue has been translated from a question of what needs to be done to a question how can it be done? After all, as a behavioral psychologist, Sallis must ask “do people change” and short of forcing people to participate in physical activities that promote good health, what else can city planners do? This is the subject of his progressing research.
As a society, we must see poor health is much more than a personal problem; it is a social problem as it affects healthcare and our economies. The best we can do in the design profession is to design spaces that “feed the pleasure centers of the brain”, as Sallis puts it, and “promote our ability to get pleasure from activity”. New York City and the AIA have worked to compile design standards and guidelines that encourage architects and planners to do just that. With NYC’s Active Design Guidelines and AIA’s Roadmap to Healthy Design designers have a range of solutions from which to choose. From designing the street frontage of a building to bike paths to attractive staircases, these considerations give cues as to how a city ought to be inhabited.