Building Healthy Cities

This guest blog post was written by Gil Penalosa, Founder and Chair of the Board of 8 80 Cities and World Urban Parks, as well as former Commissioner for Parks, Sport and Recreation for the City of Bogota, Colombia.

CicLAvia Wilshire 06-2013
CicLAvia, Wilshire Boulevard (2013)

How would your life be different if you lived within a culture of health?

Consider the city. Over 85% of us in the U.S. live in cities. Think about how you go to places, where your children go to school, where your friends live, how you cross the street. This built environment – one that can feel so comforting and routine – is actually damaging to your health.

If you looked down on the average U.S. city from the air, you would find that 15 – 25% of the land is paved with streets. Of the land that is public – as in, not privately owned –  streets occupy between 70 – 90% of space that we all share. In this environment, the automobile has become our community connector. Children used to walk and bike to school, now they are driven. When our children make new friends at those schools, we drive them to their play dates. Parks are few and far between so we drive the kids to soccer practice. As cities spread, we drive for an hour or more to report to work. With all these cars on the road, we advocate for wider streets with more lanes and higher speed limits. In many communities, sidewalks do not even exist.

This method of navigating our built environment is killing us. Studies show that the chances of being killed increase by 75% when hit by a car going 35 mph versus one going 20 mph. Around the world, a person walking is killed by a person driving a car every 2 minutes. Twenty years ago, no state in the US had a population with an obesity rate over 20%. Today, there is not a single state whose obesity rate is less than 20%. Concern over obesity is not aesthetic: it causes heart attacks, respiratory problems, cancer, depression and anxiety.

And the challenges are increasing. Currently in the US there are 42 million people over 65 years old; in just 35 years, this number will double to 85 million. Of all the people who have ever lived to 65, half are alive today. We are living longer – much longer – yet our cities are becoming less friendly to older adults. As wider streets lead to longer crossing times, older people are being killed in crosswalks at 4 times the rate of their proportion of the population. The main issues facing the elderly are isolation and mobility. How are we going to address those if we continue to build communities that quite literally threaten their lives?

How do we change the future? To live a culture of health, citizens can no longer be spectators. We must act. We must each commit to participate.

Call on your governments – elected officials and your city staff in departments of planning, transportation, public health, education, parks and recreation – to commit to working with each other and with other sectors like businesses, media, activists and universities to guide the development of our cities with people in mind, creating healthy communities where all people will live happier.

Reclaim your streets. Walking and bicycle riding are the only individual modes of mobility for all people under the age of 16 and for many adults. Safe and enjoyable walking and cycling should be a right for all people. Support budgets that include money for sidewalks. Advocate for Open Streets, the closing of streets to cars on Sundays so that people can use this public space to walk, bike, be with each other. Make it easy for people be out and about in their communities, to visit other neighborhoods, to meet other people meet as equals.

Support investment in parks, large and small, that thread through your city, in all neighborhoods so that every child has a play area within ¼ mile at any given time. If land is not readily available, public properties can be converted for recreational use. School playgrounds can be used by the school during the weekdays but open to the community in the evenings and weekends.

We must improve the use of all land that is public. It belongs to all people. We must stop building cities as if everyone was 30 years old and athletic and create great cities for all. Any city, of any size, should pay attention to how well they treat its most vulnerable citizens, including children, older adults, disabled and poorer residents.

How is your city doing? You don’t have to be an expert to assess whether a park, street, sidewalk, school, library, actually any public space invites people to walk or ride. Simply use 8 80 Cities’ practice. If evaluating an intersection, think of a child you love, someone around 8 years old. Now think of an 80-year-old that you love. Would you send them across that intersection? Would they feel safe? Can they walk to school or to a park? If your answer is yes, it is good enough. But if it is no, it must be changed. The 8 and the 80 year olds are indicators. If a city promotes a culture of health for them, it will promote a culture of health for everyone, a built environment where everyone can live the healthiest lives possible.