One of the great challenges of cities is (suboptimal) urban and transport planning, with streets in many cities dominated by cars. For example, a city like Barcelona has some of the highest traffic density and air pollution and noise levels in Europe, which are responsible for an estimated 3,000 premature deaths per year. 60% of public space is used by cars, while only one out of four trips is by car, and it could be used in a healthier.
During the COVID-19 pandemic cities have started to push out cars, increase space for active transportation and increased their cycling lanes and rates. Many of these initiatives started before the pandemic, but have been accelerated during the coronavirus crisis. During lockdowns, around 90% of car drives did not miss their commute at all or some aspects, while around 90% of cyclists missed commuting a lot or some aspects of it. And air pollution and noise levels dropped considerably.
During the pandemic cities have started to push out cars, increase space for active transportation and increased their cycling lanes and rates. Many of these initiatives started before the pandemic, but have been accelerated during the coronavirus crisis
Cities such as Vienna, Boston, Oakland, Philadelphia and Minneapolis have closed roads to give more space to pedestrians and cyclists. These temporary road closures and other short-term measures are serving as testing grounds for changes that may eventually become permanent. A recent German study using cycling counters in 106 European cities showed that the 20 cities that had considerably increased their cycling network (on average by 11.5 kilometers) during the COVID-19 pandemic saw also an increase in cycling by 11% to 40% compared to those that did not.
Therefore, is it time to re-think our urban models? In the 20th century cities appeared to be designed for cars, but in the 21st century, we should we aim for cities for people. Cities should be smart, sustainable, liveable, equitable and healthy, apply nature-based solutions, have a circular economy and promote active mobility and green space. They can do this by improving their land use and implement new models.
Is it time to re-think our urban models? In the 20th century cities appeared to be designed for cars, but in the 21st century, we should we aim for cities for people.
New Urban Models
A number of new urban concepts are being introduced in various cities that go some way to address these issues like the Superblocks, low traffic neighbourhoods, 15 Minute city, Car free city or a mixture of these. What are some of the likely impacts?
Over 500 superblocks are planned in Barcelona, which reduce motorized traffic in some streets of a block and provide space for people, active travel and green space. They will reduce air pollution and noise levels, heat island effects and increase green space and physical activity and thereby could prevent nearly 700 premature deaths each year in Barcelona.
Games area in Sancho de Ávila street inside the Poblenou Superblock, Barcelona (Photo: Paola de Grenet / Barcelona Council).
Low traffic neighbourhoods, London
Similar principles are being applied in low traffic neighbourhoods. They form part of a series of relatively cheap and quick streetscape changes, which are being encouraged or funded by government as emergency measures to provide safer walking and cycling environments (safer from COVID-19 and from traffic injury risk) and relatedly, to try and discourage growth in car use given that public transport is still operating with major capacity restrictions. Low traffic neighbourhoods reduce traffic by using bollards, planters, and cameras to remove through traffic from neighbourhoods while retaining motor vehicle access to all homes. The carrot is safer, more pleasant walking and cycling (thanks to reduced motor traffic), with the stick being slightly less convenient car journeys.
Low traffic neighbourhood planters in Walworth, London. 2020. Photo: Secretlondon.
The 15-minute city, Paris
Paris is introducing the 15-minute city, where work, school, entertainment and other activities are reachable within a 15-minute walk of the home. The 15-minute city will require a fairly radical re-think of our cities and a mixing of different population groups rather than the current zoning by social economic status and therefore likely to reduce inequalities. It will also reduce the need for long distance travel and thereby CO2 emissions, and air pollution and noise levels.
15-minute city, Paris. Photo: Ubique.
The car free city, Vauban, Freiburg and Hamburg
Hamburg plans to be car free by 2034, partly to address the climate crisis. Car free cities reduce unnecessary private motorized traffic and provide easy access to active and public transportation. They reduce air pollution and noise levels, increase physical activity and create space for green space. A successful example is Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, which is neighbourhood without cars and with sustainable housing.
Vauban, Freiburg, Germany. Photo: Lieven Soete.
What these models have in common is that they aim to reduce private car use and increase public and active transportation (walking and cycling), and thereby reduce air pollution, noise and heat island effects and increase physical activity and as a result promote and improve health. They inverse the transport planning pyramid where the priority for planning for cars is replaced by giving priority to public transportation and walking and cycling. Walking is an easy, sustainable and healthy mode of transport for trips up to 3 kilometers, while cycling for up to 7 kilometres and more with electric bikes. The added benefits are that they reduce CO2 emissions and address the climate crisis and related health impacts.
Optimal transport planning pyramid
Walking should be a basic human right, but too often it is not so easy to walk out of the door to whatever destination because of a variety of reasons. Walking has many health benefits, including reducing premature mortality and cardiovascular disease and improving mental health. Important aspects of the built environment to encourage walking are for example walkability, residential density, street connectivity, access to/availability of destinations and services, infrastructure and streetscape, and safety
Increasing the cycling network and thereby cycling rates is a way to reduce motorised traffic and CO2 emissions and increase active mobility and therefore increase physical activity and people's health. This will provide people with the opportunity to build physical activity into their daily lives like daily commutes, as they have often not enough time to go to the gym. Putting a safe segregated cycling lane in each street could save 250 premature deaths annually in a city like Barcelona because of the increase in physical activity. Great progress has been made to create and increase cycling lanes, but they work only if they are safe and form part of a network.
Cycling city, Utrecht. Photo: Stan Schrama / Unsplash.
What else they share to some extent is access to green space, which is important for, for example, people's mental health, cognitive functioning and life expectancy. The availability of green space varies quite considerably between cities and is also not equally distributed within cities, with some people having easy access to green space, while others have not. There is not only a need for new developments like parks, but also more green in streets. We need to dig up asphalt and plant more trees, which will reduce heat island effects and contributes to CO2 sequestration and health.
Seoul, South Korea.
During the pandemic many people have taken to work at home (i.e teleworking), which reduces the need for commuting and reduces air pollution and CO2 emissions from commuting although may lead to an increase from residential sources.
The question is if this trend persists, and to what extent we should encourage and incentivise teleworking, for at least a few days per week. Unfortunately, e-commerce (online buying) has been growing dramatically, and this may lead to local shops closing and dead shopping streets in the long term and increased traffic and pollution in the short term, because of all the (home) deliveries. It is therefore important to make local shopping more attractive. Pedestrianizing streets and/or reducing car traffic are good ways to increase retail sales. It could support the local economy and discourage e-commerce.
Systemic and Holistic Approaches, Policies and Investments
Cities are complex systems and to address their challenges we need systemic and holistic approaches taking into many different factors and feedback loops, and address sustainability (i.e. climate crisis), livability, health and equity simultaneously. Too often we find silos by sector in cities, which stops the implementation of these approaches that address multiple challenges. We need approaches with involvement of multiple stakeholders and disciplines and sufficient investments.
Cities are complex systems and to address their challenges we need systemic and holistic approaches taking into many different factors and feedback loops, and address sustainability (i.e. climate crisis), livability, health and equity simultaneously
The COP26 in Glasgow and the release of new air quality guidelines by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2021 are putting new pressures on cities to act and reduce their climate impacts and air pollution levels. More than ever, it is time to act and to produce multiple benefits, including for health. But cities have great challenges for example to address outdated legislation e.g. zoning laws, which prevent mixed land use, which is essential for active mobility and good for health. Any new policy, action, or legislation, including for new urban developments should include planning indicators that improve health, which is often not the case. Furthermore, any changes should be formally evaluated for effects on sustainability, liveability and health and health impact assessments should be used to assess, which are the healthiest planning scenarios.
The COP26 in Glasgow and the release of new air quality guidelines by the WHO in 2021 are putting new pressures on cities to act and reduce their climate impacts and air pollution levels
But there are great opportunities, and the COVID-19 crisis may have a silver lining and could accelerate the changes that our cities need. Recently the WHO published a manifesto for a healthy recovery from the COVID-19, including building healthy and liveable cities. These ideas need support and investments. The COVID-19 financial stimulus packages such as the Biden administration Infrastructure Plan and the EU Green Deal and the Next generation funding can contribute a great deal to improve urban and transport practices and provide an excellent opportunity to improve public health.
The new urban models are a great opportunity to bring together different sectors and stakeholders and improve the link between urban planning and health again.
This blog post is based on the paper:
Mark J. Nieuwenhuijsen, New urban models for more sustainable, liveable and healthier cities post covid19; reducing air pollution, noise and heat island effects and increasing green space and physical activity, Environment International, 2021. doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2021.106850.