IF you liken the city to the human body, central business districts (CBDs) could be the heart while our parks or open spaces are its lungs. Traffic congestion in the CBDs needs more than a bypass surgery. Our “lungs,” on the other hand, are getting smaller as developments eat up many of our open spaces. It seems many of our cities need a significant lifestyle change as well if we want to live in healthier places.
One of the most important things to change in order to have fit communities is to encourage people to walk or bike. Our city’s current car-centric model affects more than our travel time. It also hinders us from a more active commute, and contributes to pollution that is already too much for the remaining trees the urban jungle can handle. To start off, we should look at how are streets and roads are designed. Pedestrians should be prioritized in the design by giving them 1/3 of the whole road for walking and biking. The rest of the road will be allotted for public transport and private vehicles, then trees and landscaping.
In progressive cities like Tokyo and London, major streets can accommodate thousands of pedestrians during rush hour because people are given 30 to 60 seconds to cross the street for every 60 to 90 seconds of car traffic. Having less than 10 seconds to cross the street, which is usually the case in our cities, not only discourages people to walk but is also not gender sensitive. It discriminates on women wearing high heels!
The design of our streets should also consider people of all kinds of physical abilities. Tactile paving surfaces serve as warning or directional guide for people who are not able to see. It indicates where pedestrians should not step beyond on crossings while the signal is on red.
When we plan our communities, it is also important to integrate places to live, work, shop, dine, worship, and learn, among many others. The distance between these areas should also be around 400 meters from each other or a five-minute walk so that people can easily walk from one point of interest to another. Otherwise, people will have to use their cars or “stop anywhere” pedicabs, tricycles, jeepneys, and buses just to buy a bottle of soda.
According to Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Duany, Plater-Zyberk Architects & Town Planners, renowned architects and town planners whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with in the ‘90s, there are five principles of an ideal neighborhood design.
The neighborhood has a center and an edge; The optimal size of a neighborhood is a quarter mile from center to edge; The neighborhood has a balanced mix of activities—dwelling, shopping, working, schooling, worshipping, and recreating; The neighborhood structures building sites and traffic on a fine network of interconnecting streets; and the neighborhood gives priority to public space and to the appropriate location of civic buildings.
Another feature of a fit community is having the benefit of an open space. These breathing spaces bring people closer to nature. It also provides people with an option other than going straight to the mall for leisure activities. Parks provide a healthy playground for children, a place to recharge for those who are stressed from work, a venue to get fit through biking and jogging, and an opportunity for social interaction.
Open spaces are also important for emergency preparedness. The open space at the ground level must be able to accommodate the number of residents in the surrounding areas, plus the fire trucks, ambulances, and other emergency vehicles. There should be at least one square meter allotted per person for evacuation. In cities like London, there is more than 30-square-meter of open space available per person.
Instead of being a cost-center, we must look at open spaces as high amenity value to our cities. A study by John Compton, author of The Proximity Principle, confirms that proximity to parks and open spaces increases property values. A good example is the Central Park in New York, which is 341 hectares of open space, surrounded by prime real estate. These open spaces should also be activated by regularly holding events like fun runs, public art exhibits, cultural performances, and the like to entice more people to regularly visit the parks.
We can also use these open spaces to promote urban farming. We are aware that our food travels many miles from the farms to our tables. That is why having access to fresh and healthy food is very essential to creating a fit community. Aside from supporting a healthy lifestyle by growing your own food, urban farming fosters a sense of community through spontaneous interactions among neighbors.
In the Philippines, the Quezon City government launched the “Joy of Urban Farming” program in 2010 to encourage its city-dwellers to grow their own food. While these urban farms are currently being maintained by the government, it could be a good opportunity in the long-run for these to be sustained by the community.
More than a want, I believe everyone deserves to live in environment-friendly cities and communities that are connected, accessible, walkable, bike-able, safe, better-lighted, convenient, and clean; with mixed-income, cross-generational, mixed-use developments; and integrating places to live, work, shop, dine, learn, worship, have healthcare, recreation and leisure.