Archive for the ‘Health + Design’ Category

Proposal for the existing MPath near Brickell Backyard in Miami / James Corner Field Operations

Proposal for the existing MPath near Brickell Backyard in Miami / James Corner Field Operations

While the High Line sparked an international conversation about how to reuse elevated transportation infrastructure in our cities, planners and designers have become increasingly focused on what lies beneath these elevated highways, subway tracks, and rail lines. Across the U.S., cities are rethinking these residual spaces, which have long been underused and neglected. The Underline in Miami, Florida is one such project that seeks to transform the area beneath one of the city’s major elevated transportation systems: the MetroRail. Following a national design competition, James Corner Field Operations, the same firm that designed the High Line, was selected to transform the underused space into “the green spine for a future 250-mile-long network of bicycle and walking trails.”

Beating out 19 other firms in a competition held by Friends of the Underline, Field Operation’s design for the first segment of the Underline, which will be 10 miles long, will be the first transportation corridor in Miami-Dade County to integrate all modes of traffic. According to Friends of the Underline, “the Underline will connect to downtown and the Miami River Greenway on the north and to the proposed Ludlam Trail and the existing South Dade Trail on the south.”

Map of the proposed underline, with other existing and proposed trails / Friends of the Underline

Map of the proposed underline, with other existing and proposed trails / Friends of the Underline

In a public meeting on June 25, Corner identified four “character” zones that will be designed along the length of The Underline. “In the Brickell area, residents were focused on nature and play; in the Grove area, residents were interested in arts and crafts and cultural incubators; around the University of Miami, there was a focus on green tech and sustainability initiatives; and around South Miami and Dadeland, residents favored active recreation and health and fitness.”

Each of these zones will have specific “places” related to the interests of each group of residents. For example, underserved communities in Dadeland that don’t have access to parks for active recreation will get playing fields, playgrounds, and exercise areas within their zone of the Underline.

Rendering of the proposed Dadeland Trail Connection / James Corner Field Operations

Rendering of the proposed Dadeland Trail Connection / James Corner Field Operations

The Underline will also connect these different communities by making improvements that will attract them to the MPath, an off-road shared path for bikers and pedestrians that currently runs beneath the rail line. According to Isabel Castilla, a project manager at Field Operations, the new design plan calls for two adjacent paths: one dedicated for cycling and one for running and walking.

The plan aims to increase pedestrian and bicyclist safety along the MPath as well. According to Friends of the Underline, one of the biggest concerns when pursuing the project was user safety. “Currently the MPath, the bike path underneath MetroRail, has limited lighting or amenities, and needs wider and safer crosswalks. All of these, and other safety issues, are being addressed,” their website says.

Throughout the space, which will create more that one hundred acres of open space and restored natural habitats, existing vegetation will be used where possible. Elsewhere, Field Operations plans to use historically-occurring plants that will decrease the need for maintenance and minimize water usage, as the firm did on the High Line. “We envision a lot of native plantings that will only grow in a robust way and will bring other species with them, like birds and butterflies,” James Corner said in a video interview. These plantings will be divided into different ecosystems found throughout South Florida, such as pine rocklands, hardwood hammocks, and wet prairies.

The proposed Hammock Trail portion of the underline will feature species native to the Brickell hammock / James Corner Field Operations

The proposed Hammock Trail portion of the underline will feature species native to the Brickell hammock / James Corner Field Operations

Corner also discussed other proposed design elements  which focus on creating an experience that is “consistent, and unified and wholesome.” For example, Field Operations may decide to use “the distinctive graphic ‘U’ in The Underline logo … in the design of seating, trash receptacles, bike parking, etc.”

As part of a commitment to provide “a 10-mile canvas for artistic expression,” Friends of the Underline plans to allow public art on the existing MetroRail infrastructure. The project recently received a $200,000 grant from ArtPlace America’s 2015 national grant program, which will go toward public art installations created by recognized national and Miami-based artists. “The artwork along The Underline will reflect the unique characteristics of the major neighborhoods along the corridor,” said Meg Daly, founder of Friends of The Underline.

The proposed Grove Gallery, near the Coconut Grove Metrorail Station, will feature public art / James Corner Field Operations

The proposed Grove Gallery, near the Coconut Grove Metrorail Station, will feature public art / James Corner Field Operations

The masterplan for the project will be completed later this month. After approvals from various agencies, construction will begin on the two demonstration projects, first at Brickell in the fall of 2016 and then at University in 2017.

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A rendering of Heroic Food Farm/Ennead Architects/Ennead Lab, Slate.com

A rendering of Heroic Food Farm/Copyright Ennead Architects/Ennead Lab, Slate.com

The True Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Never Truly Ate the SouthSmithsonian Magazine, September 2015
“As s a young naturalist growing up in the Deep South, I feared kudzu. I’d walk an extra mile to avoid patches of it and the writhing knots of snakes that everyone said were breeding within.”

A Bucolic New York Farm Aims to Recruit Veterans to Help Fix the U.S. Farming Crisis Slate.com, 9/1/2015
“A 19-acre farm near Hudson, New York, is being reimagined as an agricultural training camp for veterans. Plans for the complex, unveiled last month, include eight compact housing units and a communal space designed to respect the character and landscape of an existing farm in the town of Claverack set among the rolling agricultural fields and mountains of the Hudson River Valley.”

Here’s How the High Line’s Landscape Architects Reenvision the Office Park Fast Company, 9/3/2015
“This playland comes courtesy of an ambitious plan from developer Liberty Property Trust and landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations to inject urban attributes into what’s usually thought of as a highly un-urban space.”

Unwelcome Mat Is Out at Some of New York’s Privately Owned Public Spaces – The New York Times, 9/7/2015
“Privately owned public spaces, or POPS, are a quintessential New York real estate amenity that grants building owners zoning bonuses if they open part of their properties to the public.”

Video: 606 Trail Opens in ChicagoUrban Land, 9/8/2015
“After more than a decade of planning, Chicago this June opened the first section of the trail, now known as The 606. An elevated railroad right-of-way converted to a pedestrian greenway, the 606 is a multi-functional park system that also includes a bike path and four neighborhood parks on the ground level along its 2.7-mile (4.5 km) stretch.”

AD Innovator: Mikyoung KimArchitectural Digest, 9/9/2015
“Sensory overload is a phrase you’re unlikely to hear from Mikyoung Kim. Experimenting with touch, sight, and sound, the Boston-based landscape architect has built her name creating immersive environments—from backyard oases to waterfront redevelopments—that spark curiosity and contemplation.”

Kate Orff: Translating Research into Action – ArchitectureAU, 9/14/2015
“Kate Orff is the founder and design director of Scape, a New York-based landscape architecture studio that combines research and practice to reimagine the ecological and cultural potential of the urban landscape.”

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Institute for Forestry and Nature Research by Behnisch Architekten in the Netherlands / esb8fj.wordpress.com

Landscape architects are increasingly called upon to address the challenges of changing economic, demographic, and environmental conditions, all of which have a significant effect on the character and distribution of public health problems. One need look no further than this blog or ASLA’s guide to the health benefits of nature to grasp how the potential for using nature to improve our health excites both designers and academics alike. A recent article in The Dirt, What Dose of Nature Do We Need to Feel Better?, covered new research on the health benefits of nature and spurs me to write a comment about how we measure anyone’s responses to a “dose” of nature.

I work in public health research and focus on the contribution of biophilic design to human health and well-being. Biophilia is a term elevated by famed evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson. He defined it as an innate emotional attachment to and affinity for nature, and the design community has transformed that insight into an approach called biophilic design. In both indoor and outdoor environments, biophilic design is thought to support health and well-being through the use of natural features, materials, and settings that tap into deep-seated evolutionary preferences.

Through my work, I field questions from essentially three descending geological strata: The “leaf litter,” if you will, are the questions characterized by idle curiosity, such as: “I know intuitively that I feel better in natural environments, but what can research tell me about why?” The next layer of questions graduates to more granular humus and minerals: “What types of landscapes and specific design features support the range of outcomes (productivity, health, and well-being) that I see cited in the popular press?” But the bedrock questions relate to mechanisms (what constellation of design features work, for whom, and under what circumstances) and metrics of assessment (which biomarkers over what interval credibly link landscape exposure to desirable behavioral, psychological, and physiological responses?). These are the methods used to assess any other public health intervention at a population scale and, increasingly, they are applied to natural or “green” environments as well.

Careful readers ask questions of anything upheld as evidence-based or “true.” Most studies relating to the health benefits of nature don’t provide enough detail about landscape features and participants to delve too far beyond the leaf litter. Often, it’s as if the participants arrive in a green space as a blank slate, without the etchings of a lifetime of learning or even the residual dustings of the morning’s events. Large, statistically-significant populations can help us rise above individual differences in dose-response studies, but we are still missing many critical insights that might, in the future, allow us to tailor recommendations for healthy environments to individuals.

Popular interest in the use of biophilic design to bring nature, and natural design cues, into the built environment also introduces interesting bedrock questions about the affect of indoor priming on our responses to outdoor environments. Priming happens when we are exposed to a stimulus and that initial exposure colors our responses to subsequent stimuli. The effect of indoor environments on priming restoration isn’t well understood.

By way of example, a 2010 meta-analysis produced by Jo Barton and Jules Pretty looked at the benefits of exercise in green settings. They found that participants in research studies derived notable benefits from a relatively short period of exercise in nature, with diminishing but positive returns thereafter. Put another way, short exposures to green spaces — perhaps as small as 40 seconds, as detailed in a recent study of viewing green roofs from Australia — capitalize on the shift between where you’ve just come from and where you are. Our bodies and psyches adjust to exposure, just as they should, although the benefits continue to accrue after (what is essentially) neurobiological acclimatization.

Visions of healthier, more sustainable futures often include the use of biophilic design to bring the outside inside, softening the upwards of 90 percent of time we spend indoors. How then will our neurobiological resting states – and the conditions that provoke short-term restoration – shift? Is the research participant who steps out of a biophilic building effectively primed differently than the one who steps out of a more conventional office setting? If so, should the structure of nearby restorative landscapes change in response to the levels of biophilic design found in abutting buildings in order to reliably produce a restorative response?

It’s unclear if the future of health research even holds space for questions which are, effectively, not essential to human survival. If we allow ourselves the luxury to consider optimizing landscape design for human health and well-being, however, I believe we should pay more attention to the transitional spaces and mind states that often set the tenor of experience: the doorway, the window, the moment at which a vista assembles itself into an intelligible and pleasing frame.

Where we come from matters and, if we’re thoughtful about where we’ve just been, it will also change where we’re about to go.

This guest post is by Julia Kane Africa, program leader, Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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At a press conference to launch a new campaign for walkable communities, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said only half of Americans get enough physical activity to reduce their risk of heart disease and diabetes. Adults need 22 minutes of moderate activity each day, or about 150 minutes a week, at a minimum. But as mainstream health researchers and medical professionals are now realizing, half of the U.S. population may not be walking because they live in communities that actually physically prevent them from doing this. Over 30 percent of American communities can be considered unwalkable. And in these places, walking is not only a hassle — given it requires people to actually drive or take a bus to where they can get out and walk around — but it can also be dangerous. In 2013 alone, 4,700 pedestrians lost their lives due to collisions with cars, and since 2003, nearly 50,000 have.

Murthy explained that Americans have “lost the culture of physical activity.” This has led to a health crisis. Indeed, according to the National Institute of Health, two-thirds of Americans are now considered overweight, with one-third considered obese. About 5 percent of the population is considered morbidly obese. But for Murthy, this cultural shift away from physical activity is directly connected with the growing dearth of walkable places. And it’s particularly bad for seniors, people of color, and people with disabilities, who disproportionately live in unwalkable areas. “That’s a health equity issue, too.”

Furthermore, 7 out of 10 Americans die from preventable chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, obesity, and heart disease. He added, “it turns out the most powerful way we can turn the tide on chronic disease is something we have been doing for millennia: That is walking.” He pointed to the public health department of a community in Indian River, Florida, that undertook an audit of the community’s streets and then completely revamped them to become walkable, complete streets. “95 percent of residents now spend time walking outside.”

And it’s not just about walking, but also rolling. Murthy called for all communities to be fully wheelchair accessible. As the wheelchair-bound Maryland state official Juliette Rizzo explained, “50 percent of Americans with disabilities don’t get enough exercise. And adults with disabilities are three times as likely to have chronic diseases.” For Rizzo, there are not many places where she can go exercise, and these kinds of gyms are expensive. “But rocking and rolling are always affordable.” Rizzo disabused people of the notion that people just sitting in their wheelchairs aren’t exercising as well. As she navigates a path, she herself is moving and shifting her body, pumping her arms.

Others lent their support at the press conference: Tyler Norris with Kaiser Permanente, a major healthcare provider, said their doctors now “prescribe walking.” He urged communities to leverage both public and private investments to create the infrastructure needed for walking and wheelchair rolling. Norris added that “walking is a right, not a privilege or luxury. All must be able to walk in their communities, and that means all.”

Carlos Monje, assistant secretary for transportation policy with the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the Highway Administration has created “more flexible” mobility standards that will enable local communities to better fund their sidewalk improvement projects. He said the U.S. Congress is still debating the massive surface transportation bill, with its important “transportation alternatives” programs, which is Congressional-speak for projects with sidewalks and bike lanes, and urged people to contact their representative to push for safer, more walkable streets.

And Kathy Smith, CEO of America Walks, said over 500 organizations across the country are doing important bottom-up work to make communities more walkable, often with annual budgets of less than $10,000. And some of these organizations encourage specific segments of the population to walk more. One example is GirlTrek, which builds support for walking as a healing process among African American women and girls. As GirlTrek co-founder Vanessa Criglar stated at the event, “African American girls in particular face barriers to walking.”

Murthy is following the lead of environmental health leader Dr. Richard Jackson, who has written many books and produced a PBS series to bring attention to the disconnect between public health goals and the built environment. It’s just too bad that the organizers of this important event at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services didn’t invite any representatives from the wide ranging fields involved in planning, designing, and implementing a safe, healthy transportation system. While we certainly applaud Surgeon General Murthy’s new campaign, the press conference featured many doctors, even representatives from the council of shopping malls, but not a single representative from the urban planning, development, landscape architecture, and transportation engineering fields, which will create the solutions so critically needed.

We must build strong partnerships between the public health and medical communities on one side and the planning and design worlds on the other to make sure this nationwide shift back to walking gets planned, designed, and built.

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Dr. Maria Cristi Rueda and Dr. Robert Zarr with a young patient holding a copy of her park prescription / HealthIT Buzz

Dr. Maria Cristi Rueda and Dr. Robert Zarr with a young patient holding a copy of her park prescription / HealthIT Buzz

Pediatricians in Washington, D.C. are prescribing their patients a new type of medicine: parks. Presenting on the success of DC Park RX, a new community health initiative, at a conference organized by Casey Trees, Dr. Robert Zarr, the founder and director of the program, said that many doctors have started to recognize the positive impact nature has on many health conditions. “Nature clearly shows an effect on your health in terms of prevention. So you may not have a diagnosis yet, but if you’re headed that way, you can certainly turn that around by spending more time outside,” Zarr said.

DC Park RX created a searchable online database of parks, identifying 350 green spaces in the district. Every park gets a one-page summary that makes it simple for both healthcare providers and patients to find a nearby park. “If a child was obese and really liked to play basketball, a doctor can very quickly go through the parks in the database in about 5 seconds, find a park with basketball courts, and print it out for them with directions for how to get there. They get the information to them right then and there,” Zarr said. Doctors are able to integrate the database right into their workflow with patients’ charts, just as they would any other prescription.

Unity Health Care pediatrician María Rueda-González shows a patient a park near her home / The Washington Post by Kate Patterson

Unity Health Care pediatrician María Rueda-González shows a patient a park near her home / Kate Patterson, The Washington Post.

According to The Washington Post, it is hard to say how many people are currently using the public database, but at “Unity Health Care, which serves 100,000 District residents, 180 providers with access to the system have made 720 prescriptions.” Zarr said that preliminary data indicates that children who have been prescribed time in the park are getting an additional 22 minutes per week of physical activity, and are spending 6 more days per year at a park for at least 30 minutes, results he finds encouraging for such a small program.

Parks are now being recognized as critical to medically treating chronic disease. “100 million Americans suffer from chronic disease and being overweight or obese contributes to chronic disease. Chronic disease results in decreased quality of life and ultimately in premature death, but spending time in a natural environment increases physical activity, hence decreasing the risk of obesity and chronic disease,” Zarr said.

Dr. Robert Zarr leads a hike through a park in Washington, D.C. / National Park Service by Diana Bowen

Dr. Robert Zarr leads a hike through a park in Washington, D.C.
/ Diana Bowen, National Park Service

Though Park Rx is one of the first programs to give doctors a tool to prescribe parks, the idea that doing physical activity in nature offers health benefits is hardly new. Many studies have now made the connection. For example, research published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2008 indicated that children who are active outdoors are less prone to obesity than their peers who spend hours inside in front of their TVs and computers.

With rates of depression at an all-time high, doctors are also using DC Park Rx to treat mental health illness. “Spending all of you time inside is not good for your mental health,” Zarr said. “Common diagnoses of mental illnesses — most, if not all of them, can be ameliorated by being outside.” In 2009, Dutch researchers found that living close to parks, “or at least near many trees, can have far reaching mental health benefits for people. In turn, living in places without parks or trees, especially if you are young or poor, can have major negative impacts.”

However, Zarr noted that he doesn’t expect parks to be the cure for every patient. “Sometimes a patient just isn’t there yet,” he said. “We don’t prescribe a park to every patient, but when they are ready we will.” For patients suffering from chronic disease, or are on the verge of developing a chronic disease, prescribing increased access to nature as part of an integrated treatment plan poses few risks and offers plenty of benefits.

Zarr is currently trying to find a way to expand DC Park Rx across the entire city and improve the functionality of the database to make it more like “Yelp for parks.” He has also been given the go ahead to further research and compile the biometric data he is accumulating, which will hopefully indicate a link between patients who have been prescribed parks and a decrease in their Body mass indexes (BMIs), blood pressure, and symptoms of depression. And with a stronger base of evidence for the health benefits of nature, it is only a matter of time before more doctors add to their prescription pads an Rx for outdoor activity.

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Charlotte, North Carolina street trees / Kenny Craft on Pinterest

The science is increasingly clear: trees are central to healthy, livable cities. New studies are only adding to this understanding. For example, recent research published in the prestigious journal Nature found that having 10 more trees on your block, on average, improves the perception of your own health in ways comparable to an increase in annual income of $10,000 or being 7 years younger. However, according to Cene Ketcham, a graduate student in urban forestry at Virginia Tech, the benefits of urban trees are rarely experienced equally across a city.

“We know trees have a lot of benefits. And if we know that having trees in our cities is important for our health, the converse must also be true — a lack of trees hurts your health,” Ketcham said at a conference organized by Casey Trees in Washington, D.C.

Ketcham noted that a lower tree canopy is often correlated with lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color – “areas that have historically been disproportionately impacted.” While non-profit and city-led tree planting programs are poised to bridge this gap, most are not designed with environmental justice goals in mind. The groups leading these urban tree-planting programs are increasingly aware of this problem, but what specific strategies are most effective for getting urban trees into the areas that need them the most?

Ketcham studied 11 different programs in six cities: Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Denver, Colorado; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; and Sacramento, California. Each of these programs have a different planting plan that accounts for inequalities. In Charlotte, for example, race and income are tightly tied together, so improving tree cover in underserved neighborhoods did not require a city-wide effort to make an impact in these communities. “But, of course, the closer you get to planting trees all over an entire city, the better off you’ll be,” Ketcham added.

The programs Ketcham identified as the most successful at getting trees into underserved neighborhoods are NeighborWoods in Charlotte, Friends of Trees in Portland, and CityShade in Austin. Based on the success of these programs, Ketcham identified four strategies city government and non-profit tree planting organizations can implement to make sure trees are planted where they are most needed:

Target Planting Areas

Successful tree planting programs use outreach efforts and highly targeted planting. “Portland canvassers go door to door in low-income neighborhoods advertising the benefits of trees. A lot of effort goes toward getting trees in where people want them,” Ketcham said. Of course, city-wide tree cover is the goal, but in larger cities where trees are disproportionately benefiting some neighborhoods, targeted tree-planting efforts can go a long way.

Urban forestry volunteers in Portland, OR / City of Portland

Urban forestry volunteers in Portland, OR / City of Portland

Build Strong Municipal and Non-Profit Partnerships

“It’s not just somebody some throwing labor in, it’s a tightly integrated collaboration,” Ketcham said. Programs that have been successful bring together public and private organizations. “Maybe the city buys the trees, while the non-profit runs the program.” In any case, it’s important that both groups take ownership of the tree-planting program.

For example, Treefolk’s CityShade program in Austin works very closely with Austin’s urban forestry department. From October 2014 through March 2015, the program worked with the city to plant 350 large-container trees and mulch existing trees in seven parks and greenbelts in Austin. According to CityShade, the organization also planted native trees to beautify, and provide shade and wildlife habitat in some of Austin’s lowest-income neighborhoods.

Volunteers plant trees along a highway in Austin, Texas / TreeFolks

Volunteers plant trees along a highway in Austin, Texas / TreeFolks

Reduce Property Owner Responsibility

Particularly in low-income neighborhoods, it’s important to reduce the pressure on individual property owners to plant trees. Not only are people in these areas struggling to overcome challenges bigger than increasing the tree canopy, but residents in these areas are more likely to be renters. “If you’re in an area with a lot of renters you’re not going to want to work on improving your landlord’s property. And the landlord might not even want the trees if it will change the property value,” Ketcham said. Instead, successful programs rely on volunteers and contractors to plant the trees, rather than giving trees to neighborhood residents.

However, some successful programs do provide help and guidance to residents who want trees on their own properties. Friends of Trees in Portland makes it easy for someone to plant a tree at their home with this step-by-step video.

Priotize Public Spaces

While most programs focus on getting trees onto residential properties, successful programs work on “improving tree cover, not just in residential areas but also in public spaces.” Planting trees in public spaces can provide neighborhood-wide health and environmental benefits.

For example, CityShade in Austin partnered with Austin’s watershed protection division and urban forestry department to plant thousands of small, native, tree seedlings in public areas in order to conserve water and improve water quality in Austin’s waterways. Though mainly focused on residential plantings, Charlotte’s NeighborWoods program will also help provide trees for homeowner association’s common areas when appropriate, so that everyone in the neighborhood can benefit from increased access to nature.

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Cities Safer by Design, a report by the World Resources Institute

Cities Safer by Design, a report by the World Resources Institute / WRI

Globally, 1.24 million people are killed in traffic accidents every year, with more than 90 percent of these deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries. Traffic-related incidents are the eighth-leading cause of death worldwide, and the number-one leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15-29. A response to the United Nations’ declaration to create a “Decade of Action” on improving traffic safety, Cities Safer by Design, a new report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, offers urban design best practices and real-world case studies both developed and developing world cities can use to put an end to traffic deaths and injuries.

Cities Safer by Design presents five basic urban design elements that create safer travel environments: block size, connectivity, lane width, access, and population density.

Block Size

Safe urban design is about reducing motor vehicle speeds. The faster a driver goes, the more difficult it is for him or her to avoid hitting a pedestrian in their path. Due to less frequent interruptions, larger blocks allow vehicles to accelerate more freely. More junctions mean more places where cars must stop and pedestrians can cross. According to the report, to improve safety and walkability, blocks should be 75-150 meters long. If blocks are any larger than 200 meters, mid-block pass-throughs with signals or raised crossings should be added every 100-150 meters.

Smaller block sizes have been successfully implemented in central areas of Shanghai, such as Xin Tian Di, to create more walkable neighborhoods. More Chinese cities that had mistakenly built “super blocks” are starting to apply the same approach.

shanghai 2

A street for pedestrians in Shanghai / Jamie Sinz


The report recommends increasing connectivity to multiples modes of transit in order to decrease travel distances and improve access to destinations. Creating multiple routes for pedestrians and cyclists also helps disperse traffic, discourage car use, and reduce travel time.

Mexico City has also created walkable urban landscapes around its Metrobús bus rapid transit (BRT) system that enables safe bicycle and pedestrian access.

Bikers and BRT passengers outside of the Mexico City Metrobus / EMBARQ by  Alejandro Luna

Bikers and BRT passengers outside of the Mexico City Metrobus / EMBARQ by Alejandro Luna

Vehicle Lane Width

The amount of a street devoted to vehicles shapes the amount of street available for pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, parking lanes, and landscape curb extensions. Reducing street widths creates a safer pedestrian experience because they shorten pedestrian crossing distance and exposure to cars and also slow traffic by “increasing drivers’ perception of impediments.” Again, slower traffic mitigates the potential severity of crashes.

According to the report, evidence from Mexico City shows that as the maximum pedestrian crossing distance at an intersection increases by 1 meter, the frequency of pedestrian crashes increase by up to 3 percent. Other studies highlighted in the report show the most significant relationship to injury crashes is street width and street curvature. As street width widens, crashes per mile per year increase exponentially.

Access to Destinations

Neighborhoods should be designed to include transit, parks, schools, and stores within walking distance, which is defined as 0.5-kilometers. Having a variety of destinations in neighborhood clusters encourages people to meet close to home, decreasing the need for vehicular travel and improving overall safety.

In the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City, the prevalence of shops and public spaces encourage walking while discouraging vehicular traffic. Recalling an earlier area before sprawl took over the city, Coyoacan’s cobbled streets lead to garden plazas where street vendors gather.

Santa Catalina Plaza and Church located on Avenida Sosa in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City / Thelmadatter

Santa Catalina Plaza and Church located on Avenida Sosa in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City / Thelmadatter

Population Density

A 2009 study cited in the report found that for an increase in density of 100 persons per square mile, there was a 6 percent reduction in injurious crashes and a 5 percent reduction in all crashes after controlling for vehicle miles traveled, street connectivity, and land use. In contrast to more sprawling cities, high-density cities not only reduce the need for vehicle travel, but also reduce the need for their associated infrastructure, such as roads and sewers.

Tokyo has successfully developed high-density mixed-use neighborhoods near rail and bus stations. According to the report, Tokyo has a traffic fatality rate of 1.3 per 100,000 residents. Compare this rate to Atlanta, Georgia, one of the most sprawled-out cities in the U.S., which has 9.7 traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents.

Street in Jiyugaoka,Tokyo

Street in Jiyugaoka, Tokyo / Cozyroom_mimi (Flickr)

With the percentage of the world’s population living in cities expected to hit 70 percent by 2030, reducing traffic fatalities from unsafe streets should be a priority. Safer streets also increase the quality of life for urbanites, particularly for those in developing countries. WRI’s report shows policymakers, urban designers and planners, and landscape architects what works: designing for pedestrian safety means improving urban health and sustainability overall.

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User ratings for Park Row, New York, NY / Liz Camuti

User ratings for Park Row, New York, NY / Liz Camuti

Most smartphone map apps give you several direct routes to get from Point A to Point B, but the quickest or most convenient path isn’t always the most enjoyable. Those interested in finding the most beautiful, walkable route to their destination can now try Walkonomics. The app, created by United Kingdom programmer Adam Davies, allows users to find more beautiful paths through seven cities across the globe using both open and crowd-sourced city data.

Walkability-related data and apps have existed for a number of years. Websites like Walk Score rate individual addresses based on a number between 0 and 100, telling you how walkable or car-dependent an area is. But according to CityLab, Walk Score has yet to incorporate “more fine-grained and diverse data about the quality of the pedestrian experience.”

Walkonomics attempts to provide just that. Not only does this free iOS and Android app allow people to check the pedestrian-friendliness of most streets in Central London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Buenos Aires, and Glasgow, but it also allows them to chose either the quickest or most beautiful routes between destinations in these cities.

The app provides star rankings for eight different categories of pedestrian-friendliness: road safety; easy to cross; pavement/sidewalk; hilliness; navigation; fear of crime; “smart & beautiful;” and “fun & relaxing.” These ratings are generated from open data including street widths, traffic levels, crime statistics, pedestrian accidents, and even how many trees are on each street. Visitors and  residents can provide additional ratings for each of these criteria as they walk down streets in their neighborhood, as well as geo-referenced photos.

As I tested the app, I found that certain elements are not as user-friendly as existing ones in Google Maps. For example, typing in the name of a location rather than a specific address, which typically works pretty accurately in other mapping apps, is a bit of a struggle with Walkonomics, which requires your location or a very specific address if you’re not navigating to a famous landmark.

Though I am not a native New Yorker, I also found it strange that the most beautiful route between two New York City locations took me around Central Park, while the fastest route took me almost directly through the park. Is a stroll down a tree-lined street truly more beautiful than a walk through a park? This raises the question: how does Walkonomics actually quantify the most beautiful route, when what makes something beautiful is subjective. Furthermore, it’s unclear how Walkonomics, which is intended for urban streets, incorporates parks. Perhaps, the app could benefit from more crowd-sourcing and input from people who really know these streets (Most streets in New York only have one user rating). Davies said he also has plans to provide more options, like the safest and cleanest routes, which are more easily quantified.

The most beautiful route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app  / Liz Camuti

The most beautiful route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app / Liz Camuti


The fastest route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app / Liz Camuti

Despite the app’s shortcomings, Davies has certainly tapped into a real demand for walkable places. Also, studies have shown that walkable streets can boost retail sales by up to 80 percent. Research indicates walkable neighborhoods reduce obesity levels, carbon emissions, and crime, among other benefits. In fact, the benefits of walkable cities have become so widely known that many big businesses are choosing to move their headquarters back to more walkable locations.

If you live in one of the seven cities available on the app and have an extra five minutes in the morning, take Walkonomics for a spin. Not only could you end up feeling less stressed at the beginning of your workday, but you’ll have the opportunity to add to a growing data source designed to make cities a little bit more livable. And, hopefully, Walkonomics will in turn open up its own data, as it could be really useful to landscape architects, urban planners, and health researchers trying to figure out what makes one route more appealing than another.

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Labyrinth at St. Joseph Memorial Hospital, Santa Rosa, California / Clare Cooper Marcus

Labyrinths have become increasingly popular in healthcare settings like hospitals, outpatient clinics, hospices, and elder care facilities. Designers often include them in their plans, sometimes encouraged by the client or the funding donor. However, labyrinths are not always appropriate for healthcare gardens. While they can be very successful, there are now too many examples of labyrinths that are poorly sited, badly designed, or just shouldn’t be there. As with any element of a healthcare garden, the design intention must be to provide what will most benefit the users–patients, visitors, and staff. Clare Cooper Marcus and I discuss this issue in our book Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-Based Approach to Designing Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces, from which some of this text is excerpted. Please understand: I have nothing against labyrinths per se. In fact, in the right place and context, I think they are wonderful and very much enjoy walking them.

First, What is a Labyrinth?

The classical labyrinth consists of a continuous path that winds in circles into a center and out again. This basic form dates from antiquity and is intended for contemplative walking. A labyrinth is sometimes erroneously referred to as a maze, which consists of a complex system of pathways between tall hedges, with the purpose of getting people lost. The aim of a maze is playful diversion, whereas the aim of the labyrinth is to offer the user a walking path of quiet reflection.


Labyrinth at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada

The Labyrinth Trend

I’m not sure what led to the uptick in labyrinths in healthcare gardens (as well as other gardens), but here are some guesses:

Labyrinths are immediately recognizable as contemplative spaces that encourage silent walking and meditation. Like “Zen gardens,” they symbolize peace and relaxation.

They are usually easy to install and, unlike planting beds, require very little maintenance. However, most labyrinths are paved and according to many research studies, people prefer less paving and more plants in healing gardens.

Here is why labyrinths are often not the right choice for healthcare gardens:

They take up a lot of space that could be used for plants, a covered gathering area, or a more flexible activity space. Because people view labyrinths as somewhat sacred, they are reluctant to walk across them to get from Point A to Point B. Unless the garden is quite large, a labyrinth is probably not the best use of space.

Labyrinths are usually not sheltered by trees or another shade structure. People in hospitals – especially patients – are extremely vulnerable to sun and glare.

They take a long time to walk, which may not be good or even possible for some patients.

They are usually not wheelchair accessible. So people who have limited mobility — anyone in a wheelchair, scooter, walker, or even with a large stroller — can’t use them, which, especially in a hospital environment, is rather sad.

How to Design a Labyrinth for a Healthcare Garden

If you plan on including a labyrinth in a healthcare garden, consider the following design guidelines from Therapeutic Landscapes:

The classical labyrinth consists of 11, 7, or 5 concentric circles. The path of the 11-circuit labyrinth is 860-feet long and thus should not be considered for a healthcare garden. Walking that far would likely tax the energy of patients or the time of visitors or staff. The 7- or 5-circuit labyrinth is more appropriate, both in terms of the length of the path and in terms of the space it claims.

People walking a labyrinth are in a contemplative, introspective mood and do not want to be stared at. Site the labyrinth in a secluded location out of sight of other garden users and nearby windows.

Since some people view the process of walking a labyrinth to be a spiritual experience, site it where others will not be forced to walk across to get from one destination to another.

Since many people may be unfamiliar with the purpose of a labyrinth, provide information nearby indicating how to walk the path.

Consider a “finger labyrinth” – they take up far less room and can still provide people with a meditative practice.


Finger labyrinth at the American Psychological Association / Naomi Sachs

This guest post is by Naomi Sachs, ASLA, and Clare Cooper Marcus, Hon ASLA. Sachs is founder of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network and Naomi Sachs Design. Some of the text for this post was excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-Based Approach to Designing Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces by Clare Cooper Marcus and Naomi A. Sachs. Copyright 2014.

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The Atlantic / Toby Melville, Reuters

The Atlantic / Toby Melville, Reuters

Green Spaces Make Kids Smarter ­– The Atlantic, 6/16/15
“Spending time in nature is correlated with better mental health, attention, and mood in both children and adults. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests green spaces can boost cognitive outcomes in children.”

How the City Handled the Flooded RiverwalkChicago Magazine, 6/16/15
“The designers in charge of the Riverwalk’s recreational transformation are privy to Chicago’s penchant for flash floods. Landscape architect Gina Ford said last October that the city’s unpredictable weather played a significant role in her team’s design.”

New Queens Quay a Redesign for Everyone The Toronto Star, 6/21/15
“Perhaps for the first time, the city has built a thoroughfare for everyone. That means pedestrians, cyclists, skate boarders, roller bladers, babies in strollers, transit passengers, wheelchair users and, yes, drivers.”

Experience on the Water The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/23/15
“Crowned by an inverted pyramid structure, the Pier of St. Petersburg, Florida, leads visitors on a long and narrow journey to the end and back. However, as it stands now, it stops short of providing much value outside of that.”

A New Playground in the Bronx Soaks Up the City’s Problematic Storm WaterThe New York Times, 6/24/15
“The $1 million playground renovation was undertaken by the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation group, and the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, as part of a partnership to turn 40 asphalt-covered play spaces across the city into weapons against water pollution.”

Review: In ‘A Little Chaos,’ a Guileless Kate Winslet Offsets a Lavish Versailles – The New York Times, 6/25/15
“Into this jungle of obscene privilege arrives Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a sturdy, guileless everyday woman chosen by the king’s chief landscape architect, André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), to design the Rockwork Grove, an outdoor arena-like ballroom of tiered steps through which water gushes as an unseen orchestra plays behind the shrubbery.”

A Landscape Architect’s Bridge to New Ideas – The Wall Street Journal, 6/30/15
“As president of the international landscape architecture firm EDSA, Doug Smith has worked in destinations as exotic as Egypt and as local as his home state of Florida.”

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