As the green building movement continues to gain momentum, city planners are embracing and expanding the sustainability concept to include personal health and wellness into urban design. One simple fix for today’s metropolitan sprawls is to make cities more pedestrian friendly – providing the parks, walkways, and other features that will provide alternative transportation and enjoyable outdoor spaces, fighting global warming and improving livability in one fell swoop.
Making our cities safer and more accessible to self-propelled populaces requires some ingenuity and smart design. Here are some ways today’s urban centers are moving away from the vehicle-centric vision of the grid to foot-friendly models.
Biker Friendly Streets
Bicycling offers a one-two punch for health and environmental concerns, giving residents an endorphin-inducing way to get around town. Safety, though, has always been a major concern for two-wheelers the world-over. Groups like Critical Mass – a seemingly spontaneous gathering of sometimes thousands of nude cyclists – ride to raise awareness of the need for wider, more protected bike lanes and better road design. Double lane bicycle paths for passing, well-connected bicycle sharing programs, dedicated bike thoroughfares and bike friendly public transit (racks on buses, bike-accessible metros) are some of the ways today’s cities can embrace a growing pedal-powered population.
Elevated (and Subterranean) Parks
With the celebrated success of New York City’s High Line project, more cities are reconsidering the utility and aesthetic of raised communal paths and pedestrian parkways. The High Line sits on a renovated freight rail line that weaves through Manhattan’s West Side, and now boasts unique scenic vistas, benches, and fauna. Similar projects are springing up in urban areas across the U.S., including Chicago’s proposed Bloomingdale Trail and Park and even a consideration for New York’s soon-to-be-defunct Tappan Zee Bridge. Elevated parks allow for pedestrians to get up and away from busily trafficked streets below and experience the cityscape in an entirely new way.
The Low Line project – the underground alter-ego of the High Line – is a proposal to build a sprawling park and recreational area in an abandoned below-ground trolley stop in New York’s Lower East Side. With innovative lighting technology, which consists of collecting mirrors, fiber optic transmission cables, and redistribution lenses, underground parks like the Low Line can offer rich, natural lighting for public venues where pedestrian space is at a premium.
Another easy way for cities to create more walk-able urban environments is the restoration of brownfields, or derelict post-industrial sites that often sit undeveloped because of soil contamination or other health concerns. Local and federal government incentive programs, such as the EPA’s Brownfields Program in the United States, provide funds for the restoration of these useless eyesores into much-needed public spaces for leisure, fitness, and even integrated public works. The Wetland Park project in Los Angeles, for example, is transforming a rail storage yard into an ecological preserve doubling as a storm water treatment plant, providing boardwalks, habitats for local animal life, an 80,000 square foot public use facility and capacity to treat up to 680,000 gallons of storm water per day.
This foot-friendly solution may seem like a no-brainer, but few cities utilize the economic and communal power of streets dedicated solely to pedestrian traffic. Confined mostly to waterfronts or small European villages, pedestrian thoroughfares allow for vibrant economic and public spaces in the midst of the commotion of downtown urban centers, slowing the neighborhood pace enough to allow for outdoor enjoyment, lazy weekend shopping, and community-sponsored activities. For cities unwilling to commit to fully vehicle-free streets, pedestrian-priority roadways allow for walkers and cyclists to roam about confidently while still permitting low speed automobile traffic.
Light Rail Access
One of the most important aspects of encouraging pedestrian traffic in today’s cities is the provision of easily accessible connections with efficient and reliable public transit infrastructure. Light rail systems are ideal in that they are relatively cheap to integrate, have dedicated railways (meaning fewer accidents than buses), and can quickly connect various pedestrian centers in a sprawling urban area. With government-funded infrastructure budgets blossoming in response to the economic downturn, light rail projects could enable more city residents to ditch their cars in favor of greener, sneaker-centric modes of transportation.
Sustainable, Connected Communities
One of the main benefits of creating more pedestrian-friendly cities, in addition to the reduction of fossil fuels and pollution, is the sense of the communal connection fostered by the experience of mingling among fellow pedestrians in well-designed civic spaces and infrastructure, helping offset some of the alienation brought on by our cubicle-and-vehicle-caged modern lives. Moving towards healthier, greener cities may turn out to be a walk in the park.