Good Urban Planning and Design – Why It Matters

This week the City launched the planning process that will result in the Official Community Plan – a document that will outline the city’s priorities for growth and development over the next 25 years. As Greg mentioned in his post earlier this week there are opportunities for people to come out and discuss the future of our city – What are the priorities? What do citizens want their neighbourhoods and city to look like? What changes do we need to make in the way we plan and build to make Regina a vibrant, healthy, and rewarding city to live in?

I hope that a lot of the conversation focuses on ways to minimize sprawl, increase overall density, and improve neighbourhood and city-wide connectivity (walkability, bikability, transit, etc.). And really, it should focus on these issues. Regina, like many North American cities, has continued to build outwards for many years and the costs of this inefficient style of development (in particular the infrastructure deficit) are starting to catch up with us. It’s time to re-think our city.

In addition to the monetary costs of low-density, car-centric development, there are also very personal costs – things that can impact our health and stress our daily lives. Here are a collection of recent articles and studies to keep in mind as we plan for the Regina we want to see:

1) Bad neighbourhood design can impact your health: Along with lack of access to healthy food, those who live in outlying neighbourhoods with low walkability have poorer physical health (from less exercise) and poorer mental health (from isolation).

“We used to call them ugly, but now social geographers and medical practitioners label the disconnected sections of the city “obesogenic,” meaning environments that promote obesity.” (via Globe and Mail)

2) Long commutes can stress your marriage: A recent Swedish study found a 40% increased risk for divorce amoung people with long commute times. The reasons include increased stress and anxiety, potential gender inequalities in the home, and reduced time spent with loved ones.

“[Commuting is]annoying, especially if you have to do it by car, and a long trip home every night can put someone in a bad mood. It also takes time that could otherwise be spent with a partner or kids, and may put partners on drastically different schedules, which is hard on any union.” (via Jezebel and Grist)

3) Car commutes might be crushing your soul: I’ll let Grist spell out this interesting finding from a recent ‘Urban Mobility Report’

“The UMR also included a “commuter stress index” [PDF]. We wouldn’t put too much stock in this number as a psychological measure — it’s actually just another way of quantifying how bad rush hour really is. But it’s definitely true that being stuck every day in a sluggish line of can’t-drive assclowns wears on you. Using “stress index” as shorthand for “sheer brain-horror of rush hour driving index” just makes sense.”

For contrast– a recent report from the NYC Department of Health showed that people can get a lot of their physical activity just by going about their day using active transportation (walking, biking, even transit):

“The majority of New Yorkers who take transit to work, for example, get eleven minutes of physical activity each day from recreation. But they move for 57 minutes a day just to get around, whether it’s to walk to the bus or run some errands during lunch. New Yorkers who walk or bike to work get slightly more exercise than transit riders as part of their daily routine, while drivers get less than half as much. The city’s compact development and strong transit system are the key to incorporating activities that lower New Yorkers’ risk of diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.” (via StreetsBlog)

Creating an Official Community Plan that promotes a well-connected, well-designed city should be a priority moving forward for all Reginans regardless of whether you want to live in the heart of downtown or a quick bus trip away.

5 thoughts on “Good Urban Planning and Design – Why It Matters”

  1. Thanks for the post Laura.

    In its pre-election budget, the Harper Conservatives proposed a $500 fitness tax credit for adults to complement an existing credit for activities that enhance children’s physical fitness. It wasn’t supposed to come into effect until after the $40 billion deficit was eliminated (in 2015-16, say the Cons) and would cost $275 million annually.

    Gym memberships and all that are fine. Too bad, though, that more people don’t make an effort to incorporate fitness activites into every day life — like walking, cycling, taking the stairs. Too bad also that most urban neighbourhoods now make it so challenging for people to do that.

  2. Greg: How do most urban neighbourhoods make it more difficult? I live in an inner city community and walk just about everywhere. Admittedly, the cars drive me nuts (almost been hit several times, sick of people parking at my house), but isn’t the problem with bad drivers and stupid people who want free parking for their SOVs? Not my community? Most people I know in my community support walking and cycling – although I did have a disturbing conversation with a neighbour a couple of weeks ago where they indicated that they clearly didn’t understand when peds have the right to cross. Anyway, I’m just curious. Although I think we do still have a ways to go, I think that those of us who chose to live in walking distance to our jobs and services are supportive of this and the problem lies with those who aren’t making that choice.

  3. Hi anonymous,

    I think what your saying is what Greg was getting at – neighbourhood design can do a lot to impact the way pedestrians and cars interact. Even if you live close to the downtown and the distance is walkable, the design of the roads may lead to increased traffic speeds, poorly maintained sidewalks may deter pedestrians, strip development that have parking lot frontage (as opposed to parking in the back with store frontage on sidewalks) make for a hostile pedestrian environment, etc.

    I think the goal is to make walking, and cycling more safe and enjoyable (like you say, to increase the number of people who choose to use it as their mode of transportation). This is in contrast to years of planning that has prioritized vehicle movement and speed over the pedestrian realm. Hopefully that helps.

  4. Also, if you live in the inner city anonymous, the streets are probably laid out in a grid. That’s the way things were done prior to 1950 or so when cars were either not around or extremely rare. Even then, as Laura notes, walking can be a challenge. Try crossing Dewdney Ave between Albert and Pasqua where the road is six lanes wide and traffic is moving fair rapidly. Or try walking from Downtown to North Central/Warehouse District (or vice versa) where you have to use dirty, noisy, dark and wet underpasses.

    Suburbs like Hillsdale, Whitmore Park and Albert Park that were built after 1950 were pretty much designed with cars in mind. Instead of a grid, you have a lot of crescents and bays. Houses and yards tend to be substantially bigger too. If you’re moving around by car its no big deal. But if you’re walking you have quite a bit more ground to cover.

    I have a friend who lives on a bay in south Regina. Say he wanted to visit a friend in the bay that backs on to his bay. As the crow flies, the distance between the houses might be 30 metres. But to reach the house he’d have to walk a block to the end of his bay, walk another block to the thru street, walk two blocks up to the cross street that leads to his friend’s bay, then walk another block to reach the bay, then walk one last block to actually reach the house. A journey that could have been 30 metres turns into six blocks. Yes, my friend lives on a quiet bay with no thru traffic, but I’m pretty sure that he never leaves his property unless he’s in his car.

    Recreational walking is still possible, of course, but when you’re trying to incorporate walking into every day life it’s a challenge.

  5. Oddly, all the newer neighbourhoods designed “with cars in mind” are not that great to get around in by car. The grid is actually easier, where traffic kind of goes where it wants to instead of being bottle-necked into arteries and led around in circles instead of going in a straight line. I get that you want traffic to be lesser and slower near people’s homes but when you “zoom out” the network is disjointed and highly inefficient, especially for busses… which just pushes people to using cars, which means more cars using an inefficient road network, which means more congestion.
    So… the areas designed “with car in mind” actually kind of suck for cars but somehow encourage you to use them anyway.

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