If you live in the United States, you’re likely familiar with the following picture: a sprawling suburban development populated by single-family homes and far from any grocery store, let alone a school or gas station. If not this, then likely the four or even eight-lane stretches of highway standing between one store and another, or the streets with inconsistent or nonexistent sidewalks and bike paths.
Car-centric cities are prolific in the U.S. and have been since the boom of vehicular travel in the 1950s and 60s. By this time, cities were designed to accommodate our cars, but there was little foresight when it came to the impact this would have in the future, or how many people would still rely on public transit, biking, or foot travel as their main form of transportation, both out of necessity and by choice. Studies today show just how important walkability and human-centric architecture and design is for the health, safety and comfort of residents of our towns and cities.
Walkability generally refers to the ease of which people can access amenities in an environment by foot. This means safety and accessibility. For example, are there sidewalks? If so, are they well maintained, and wheelchair and disability friendly? Are they built away from or up against the road? And what of things like proper bus-stops, cross walks and shade? Such considerations for pedestrian safety should be made by urban planners, but have often been overlooked when designing our cities and roads.
The way our environments are designed directly contributes to our psychological well-being as well. There have been several studies over the years that suggest that a more accommodating and diverse environment decreases the negative impact it has on mental health. Additions of urban green spaces also seem to have a similar positive effect psychologically as one would have while interacting with nature.
Many architects have begun to notice these issues, are now focusing their efforts on designing and redesigning cities to make them more human-friendly. Some approach this by embracing developmental approaches like “New Urbanism,” which is based on creating towns that are walkable, environmentally friendly, and human-scaled, which means houses and storefronts are located nearby to each other.
A good example of New Urbanism in action right here in Colorado is Prospect New Town in Longmont. Prospect New Town was started in 1998 and has been steadily growing since then. Common themes within Prospect are brightly painted houses varying in architectural styles, and streets sporting names like “Neon Forest Cir,” “Tenacity Dr,” and “Incorrigible Cir,” but beyond the out-there names and storybook houses is a genuine effort to build a community that is human level. There’s a small grocery, a medical center, a gym, a massage therapist, a park, a coffee shop, and more, all well within walking distance of these homes. And the development as a whole is even designed to have manufactured closeness in order to establish a sense of community among its residents.
An account on TikTok by the username of pedestriandignity demonstrates the reality that pedestrians face when traveling in Denver and helps to spread awareness of a problem this city—and many towns and cities around the country—face. In his tiktoks, he observes sidewalks broken, overgrown and leading to nowhere, insufficient crosswalks, and more. Improvement to these issues means fewer traffic accidents and improved pedestrian comfort and safety.
While new urbanism is not a perfect solution—there is something to be said for its criticisms—places like Prospect New Town are certainly a step in the right direction. After all, aiming to achieve an environment where people are content to live, where people are comfortable and have community, is something to strive for.
Other architects focus their efforts on preexisting developments. Danish architect Jan Gehl and his wife, Ingrid Gehl–a psychologist–worked together for years to improve the quality of urban life in this way, and are considered to be some of the pioneers of human-centered architecture. Together they studied public spaces. Their observations of the way pedestrians interacted with their environment, such as how many people were making use of parks and squares, and their insights into why were published in two books, Life Between Buildings, and Bo Miljø (Living Environment). They acknowledged that designers need to consider the people who will be inhabiting their cities, and shared their approaches for how this can be done.
Jan Gehl has since worked with many cities around the world like Melbourne and New York City to improve and increase pedestrian-friendly spaces. Often, this can be achieved by targeting key issues like walkability, carving out designated bike lanes and sidewalks, and closing streets to vehicular traffic, as was done in Times Square.
By making these changes and reframing the way we design cities with the Humans who use them in mind, we can create environments where everyone can more comfortably live their lives.