Construction, Economic Development, and Government

Designing cities for people, not cars

Expert says that’s how vibrant and healthy communities are created.

September 19, 2014
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Guillermo Penalosa has a message for city planners: Design cities for people.

During his time as commissioner of parks, sport and recreation for Bogota, Colombia, Penalosa led the design and development of more than 200 parks, including Simon Bolivar, a 360-hectare park in the heart of the city that is host to the Summer Festival.

Also created by Penalosa, Summer Festival offers more than 100 events in 10 days and is attended by 3 million people. It has become the main annual recreational and cultural event in Colombia.

Today, Penalosa uses his knowledge of public spaces and sustainable mobility to advise decision makers and communities across the globe on how to create vibrant cities and healthy communities for everyone regardless of social, economic or ethnic background.

As executive director of the Canadian nonprofit organization 8-80 Cities for the past eight years, Penalosa has worked in more than 150 cities on all continents.

Penalosa visited Grand Rapids last week to share some of his insights into creating vibrant cities and healthy communities. He said it starts with focusing on two areas: sustainable mobility, which includes walking, bicycling, and public transit; and public spaces, including parks and streets.

Saying every trip begins with a walk, Penalosa said walking should be a city’s first priority.

He pointed out that, in traditional city designs, cars often take precedence over walkers. People often are outraged by potholes and poor road conditions, but barely blink an eye at cracked or unplowed sidewalks. Rather than focusing on plowing a city’s streets or filling in potholes, Penalosa said sidewalks should be the first priority.

Biking is the next step in building a sustainably mobile city, and Penalosa said that begins with creating a citywide network of infrastructure to attract bikers.

Penalosa said biking would not proliferate in a city unless bikers feel safe, which means bike lanes are not enough. Instead, bike lanes need to be physically separated from auto traffic, and traffic needs to be slowed down.

He showed several slides of cities that have created bike lanes that are separated from traffic. Options include curbs, planters or cement posts — any of which achieve the intended effect of safety.

Public transit is the third piece of the mobility puzzle, and dedicated bus lanes as well as bus stops and amenities that cater to the transit user are all important aspects of an effective public transit system. As with biking, the infrastructure has to come first in order to attract public transit riders.

To get more people walking, biking and using public transit, all of these options have to be safe, convenient, fast and inexpensive, Penalosa said.

Penalosa has heard all the excuses for why walking and biking will never replace driving in a city — bad weather and a car-dependent culture being two of the top reasons given, but he said that is simply not true. He said evidence has shown when walkers and bicyclists are prioritized over drivers, the result is an increase in walkers and bikers, no matter the weather or how many cars are on the road.

The other ingredient for a vibrant, healthy city is creating effective public spaces.

When designing public spaces, Penalosa said everyone in a community needs to be considered. For instance, a park with playground equipment is great, but not if there isn’t a designated area for parents to sit while their kids are playing.

As for on-street parking, Penalosa asked, “Are city streets really the best places for car parking?”

The answer is no. Cars take up a significant amount of space and while many people think parking attracts diners and shoppers, on-street parking is more often a deterrent to pedestrian traffic, shopping and dining, he said.

Penalosa said one city removed 93 parking spots from one of its streets and turned it into a street for pedestrians instead of cars. The result was an influx of people and businesses using the new public space for a variety of activities creating a much more vibrant area.

By turning public spaces into destinations, usage increases dramatically, but cities need to think of the entire community — from the youngest members to its oldest citizens — to make those spaces attractive to every type of user.

Today, American cities often are filled with traffic congestion and smog, while obesity rates are on the rise for every segment of the population. Investing in sustainable mobility and public spaces can help solve these problems, Penalosa said. Environmental, social and health-related improvements are all consequences of designing cities for people instead of cars.

Penalosa pointed out that in cities where cars rule the roadways — most American cities — people walk an average of only six minutes a day, yet he noted 48 percent of trips in a car are less than three miles, easily walk-able or bike-able.

Cities that work to make improvements and adapt their attitude can change from a car-dependent culture to a pedestrian-friendly culture, solving many of the biggest challenges.

To illustrate this point, Penalosa shared an Albert Einstein quote: “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

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