Urban planning has had a number of design movements throughout its history, ranging from the Garden City of Ebenezer Howard to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City. Today, new urbanism and complete streets are often the catchphrases of choice, but I believe even they both lack enough emphasis on a key component – active (non-motorized) mobility and movement. I believe an emphasis on creating an “Active City” could fulfill this void.
A less than memorable comedy movie from 1979, called Americathon had fascinating opening credits (see video above). At the height of the oil embargo, Americans were depicted commuting to work along a Los Angeles freeway on their bikes, uni-cycles, roller skates, skateboards, and on foot. In many ways, it is a bicycle commuter’s dream scene.
Thirty plus years later, we are in nearly the same position regarding energy consumption, but instead of embargoes, we face a dwindling supply of oil, rising prices for its use, and an increased emphasis of alternative energy forms like wind, solar, and biomass. At the same time, humans tend to continue to cocoon themselves within mobile, fossil-fuel burning, metal shells and self-imposed prisons known as gated communities. These factors combine with decreased active exercise and poor nutrition have led to a virtual pandemic in obesity and diabetes.
The vision for creating Active Cities takes elements of existing spatial form and alters its purpose for active transportation elements that will:
- compliment and coexist with new urbanism and complete streets;
- open more parts of the city to movement, linkage, and connectivity;
- provide active transportation elements with their own infrastructure and urban design features; and
- bring active transportation to the forefront of creating healthy, sustainable, and active communities.
Even in our 21st century cities, the automobile continues to dominate the streets and pedestrians continue rule the sidewalks. Active transportation elements are far too-often relegated to a sort of also-ran status, as local ordinances prohibit them from sidewalks and safety, design, or plain old common sense inhibits their use on streets.
Despite improvements generated through complete street design, many of us (especially children and older adults) do not posses the skill or bravado to negotiate busy city streets day after day on our bicycles. If streets are primarily designed and intended for motor vehicles, sidewalks for pedestrians and barrier-free movement, and railroad tracks for commuter and/or light rail, then to be successfully recognized, accepted, and utilized by a larger proportion of the general population, active transportation logically must have its own infrastructure network.
Many street departments, highway departments, and road commissions greet the concepts of complete streets and non-motorized transportation with sneering disdain. A progressive Active City would abolish these departments and replace them with a mobility or transportation department which does not oblige itself to one form of urban mobility over another.
As an avid bike commuter, the maximum reasonable time to ride to and from work is 30 minutes. Otherwise, the time and distance constraints lessen the viability of the ride as the commute impacts work requirements or morning and/or evening schedules. It does not matter whether the time is being set aside for family, relaxation, entertainment, sports, homework, or social functions, it is still important. Preferably, 20-25 minutes should be the maximum commuting time those residing and employed in well-designed and successful Active City. This means the corresponding residential areas should be situated in the downtown core or in midtown areas and not 10+ miles away in the suburbs.
Using the radial form, an Active City would be planned in the general design of a bicycle wheel with a central hub (downtown) and radiating spokes
leading to “Bicycle Urban Districts (BUDs).” A ‘BUD’ neighborhood would be situated within a 20-30 minute ride of the downtown core. An inner ring connecting the spokes near the hub would be augmented by a midtown ring which would connect the BUDs to other parts of the transportation network, thus completing the urban form. Since many cities were constructed in a grid format, the bicycle wheel would likely appear more rectangular than round, but would follow the same principle.
The spokes would be established by reuse of existing infrastructure as much as possible – the “Active Movement Corridors” would be formed from alleys, abandoned rail lines, underutilized streets, vacant and foreclosed parcels, utility corridors, and stream/drain corridors. Motor vehicle access along the Active Movement Corridors would be strictly limited, except for emergency response and infrastructure maintenance. Bicycles, roller blades, Segways, velomobiles, bike-shares, motorized wheelchairs, skateboards, and similar alternative transportation elements would be the primary users of the designated Active Movement Corridors. Pedestrians and joggers would also be permitted on these corridors, though the primary objective is the safe and efficient movement of active and alternative non-motorized transportation. Transit links could be provided along these corridors by means of pedicabs or possibly water taxis in appropriate situations.
The primary goal of the Active City would be to use alleys whenever possible as the means of constructing the hub and spoke system. The reason for this is they often run parallel to the existing transportation and commercial corridors. Businesses along these corridors would not only retain their existing clientele drawn from streets and sidewalks, but also draw new “active” customers who have shied away in the past due to the unsafe or inadequate access.
Such a design would also allow for the rejuvenation of these alleys into secondary storefronts, shopping districts, entertainment venues, and outdoor galleries or the arts. Some of the most intriguing and active areas of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and, Inverness, Scotland are the narrow alleys, closes, wynds, and similar movement corridors. Deliveries, other than by active transportation vehicles, would be sent “packing” to the streets as is quite often already done given the plethora of double-parked package delivery vans.
Within the Active City, projects would be based on new urbanism principles, but with the focus being on facilitating active transportation. The bicycle urban districts (BUDs) would include indoor parking facilities specifically designed for active transportation vehicles and the car would be secondary or regulated to separate public parking garages. Street side parking would be solely for active transportation vehicles or shared-use options and would be blended in with tasteful architectural, artistic, and landscape features.
Residential projects would also be designed to incorporate active movement with indoor/outdoor bike parking; indoor/outdoor fitness and recreation; shared-use access; greater visibility and emphasis on staircases and ramps; and whenever possible direct linkages to public parks, local markets or green grocers, and neighborhood schools and athletic fields. When direct linkages to these elements are not practical or possible, pocket parks, community gardens, swimming pools, and other active recreation opportunities must be designed into the project.
One of the best existing representations of an Active Movement Corridor is the Cultural Trail in Indianapolis, Indiana (link to map). This amazing aesthetic and active transportation feature links many parts of the midtown and downtown areas by incorporating alleys, underutilized streets, and in certain instances sidewalks to shepherd city residents and commuters via a safe, non-motorized system. It is enhanced by connecting cultural sights throughout the city and by landscape and trailscape features A second example is development in Detroit, Michigan as a Midtown Loop Greenway.
I believe the car-oriented suburb, as we have come to know it is a dying symbol of the 20th century. As we move further into the second decade of the 21st century, it is my sincere hope that both Active City principles and bicycle urban districts (BUDs) will become “budding” elements of sustainable and progressive urban planning. These systems will allow for safe, effective, and efficient commuting for those who prefer a fit, healthy, and active lifestyle. They can also serve as a conduit to revitalization of the city core and its midtown regions, while also providing increased opportunities for passive/active exercise and personal mobility. Furthermore, any opportunity that urban planners have to address and potentially reduce the twin pandemics of obesity and diabetes should be incorporated into new development projects and be weighted strongly as a positive amenity or attribute.