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10,000 Steps and Pedestrian-Friendly Neighborhoods
Alex Steffen, 25 Jan 05

Here's an idea package I find attractive: health advocates in Japan have come up with a program they call Manpo-Kei, a form of step counting, which encourages those who are having a difficult time losing weight to walk 10,000 paces in a day.

Research shows that 10,000 steps -- walking for about half an hour a day -- is the level of activity which people start to see the health benefits of exercise. Fitness sites tend to emphasize walking as a to-do list:

*Take a walk with your spouse, child, or friend
*Walk the dog
*Use the stairs instead of the elevator
*Park farther from the store
*Better yet, walk to the store
*Get up to change the channel
*Window shop
*Plan a walking meeting
*Walk over to visit a neighbor
*Get outside to walk around the garden or do a little weeding

But this is one of those situations where systemic forces are also at work. Many North Americans don't walk because their communities aren't designed for walking, they're designed for driving. As an earlier study showed, "How much time a person spent driving had a greater impact on whether a person was obese than other factors such as income, education, gender or ethnicity."

It's not that hard, though, to create walkable neighborhoods. Copenhagen has launched a ten-step plan for doing just that:

1. Convert streets into pedestrian thoroughfares. The city turned its traditional main street, Strøget, into a pedestrian thoroughfare in 1962. In succeeding decades they gradually added more pedestrian-only streets, linking them to pedestrian-priority streets, where walkers and cyclists have right-of-way but cars are allowed at low speeds.

2. Reduce traffic and parking gradually.
To keep traffic volume stable, the city reduced the number of cars in the city center by eliminating parking spaces at a rate of 2-3 percent per year. Between 1986 and 1996 the city eliminated about 600 spaces.

3. Turn parking lots into public squares.
The act of creating pedestrian streets freed up parking lots, enabling the city to transform them into public squares.


4. Keep scale dense and low. Low-slung, densely spaced buildings allow breezes to pass over them, making the city center milder and less windy than the rest of Copenhagen.

5. Honor the human scale.
The city's modest scale and street grid make walking a pleasant experience; its historic buildings, with their stoops, awnings, and doorways, provide people with impromptu places to stand and sit.

6. Populate the core.
More than 6,800 residents now live in the city center. They've eliminated their dependence on cars, and at night their lighted windows give visiting pedestrians a feeling of safety.

7. Encourage student living.
Students who commute to school on bicycles don't add to traffic congestion; on the contrary, their active presence, day and night, animates the city.

8. Adapt the cityscape to changing seasons.
Outdoor cafés, public squares, and street performers attract thousands in the summer; skating rinks, heated benches, and gaslit heaters on street corners make winters in the city center enjoyable.

9. Promote cycling as a major mode of transportation.
The city established new bike lanes and extended existing ones. They placed bike crossings--using space freed up by the elimination of parking--near intersections. Currently 34 percent of Copenhageners who work in the city bicycle to their jobs.

10. Make bicycles available.
People can borrow city bikes for about $2.50; when finished, they simply leave them at any one of the 110 bike stands located around the city center and their money is refunded

Such dense, walkable communities have other benefits as well. Pedestrian-friendly urban design is one of the key enabling conditions for effective transit systems. It tends to lower crime rates. It can build a stronger sense of community.

Whatsmore, with the rise of smart places, walking becomes a more practical life choice. When access through information provides you with the means to get more of the stuff you want without having to own it, it also frees you up from having to lug that stuff around.

Americans are already deciding they want to live in compact communities in increasing numbers. I wonder if presenting pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods as healthy neighborhoods might help even more Americans identify them as places they want to live?

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Of course, the Japanese aren't the only ones who've thought of this. McDonalds has been doing this too.

Posted by: Ryan King on 25 Jan 05

This kind of thing has to be done very carefully:

There's a delicate balance between providing an alternative and attractive community, and forcing some kind of dippy vision of how urban dwellers *should* live down residents' throats.

There's a neighborhood in Pittsburgh, East Liberty, that got a workover in (as I recall) the mid eighties. They broke the traffic grid to make a big loop road around the former shabby-but-alive retail district, put in a pedestrian mall and a transit center. When I lived in Pitt in the mid Nineties, the place was a no-go-area where the only pedestrians are bored kids and shambling derelicts, and the only businesses marginal hangers-on. There sure were plenty of places to sit and interact, but they often had someone sleeping on them.

Aaaaand there's San Francisco's Civic Center.

OTOH, I live now on the edge of a "new urbanism" area, Orenco Station, that was built from the ground up as pedestrian friendly. Townhouses, duplexes, and single homes on relatively small lots, within a few minutes walk of a (rather tony) retail area and of a light rail station that leads to downtown Portland. It's kind of artificial, and way, way upscale (read: unaffordable), but it's definitely a livelier place to live than a typical sururban development.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 25 Jan 05

Good points; when I moved to Eugene, Oregon in 1991, the center of the city was in a similar moribund state, thanks to the kind of working over Stefan describes (probably even from the same era of urban "renewal"). It was a scary, shadowy zone of non-descript brick buildings, which even human scale didn't help.

Over the course of the mid-90's, as some streets were re-opened to through traffic at slow speeds, the entire district began to come back to life.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 25 Jan 05

I got one of those McDonald's pedometers. It wasn't bad. A simple little unit that did one thing -- measure the number of steps you'd taken.

I found that a normal work day required me to walk 7,000 or so steps. If I added an evening walk, it went to 12,000. More if I took the long route, around the local Intel plant.

Then I got a dog, a big brawny Belgian shepherd who needs to be exercised to keep sane. Her morning and evening walks brought my daily step total to 17,000 or so.

I lost the unit at about that point. No need for it as long as I have Kira!

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 25 Jan 05

There's also the community aspect to walking. I can't remember where's the link, but in England there was this health project in which participants targetted aims in a collective fashion: "let's lose 1000 kilograms of extra weight between 20 people", "let's help each other smoke less", etc. People got points not only for doing their individual part (losing weight themselves) but also for helping others (maybe showing them how to prepare healthier food).

So people might earn extra points by taking each other for a walk.

Things must of course be done carefully and in the spirit of helping and getting to reasonable and good aims, as reward systems may have design flaws that make them worse than doing nothing. But if people agree on aims and keep an eye on systems, then things may well work.

Now where was that link?

Posted by: lugon on 25 Jan 05

Grr my post vanished yet again...

We moved from a city that had a horrible try at doing just this sort of thing. They blocked off alot of roads made a set of parks and such and promptly lost most every store worth having. That drove out what little income the city had been getting from that area and then it spread like a disease gobbling up all the blocks around it for quite some distance. Banks stores apartment blocks big chain stores all went kaput. It was rather creepy seeing 3 vacant banks and various other vacant buildings slowly rotting awayas no one would buy in.

In the end a ton of well off people like myself moved out en mass and the city was spiraling down the toilet the only people staying were those who couldnt leave those who didnt care and the ones who franky were part of the blight eating up the city. Still even with all that the pop was still growing the entire time just the city was decaying as it grew... it was rather freaky realy.

Posted by: wintermane on 25 Jan 05

I wonder how much of the success in Europe vs. problems in American cities has to do with different transportation schemes and resulting infrastructure and society?

What I'm trying to say is that most American cities outside the northeast are heavily car-centric, and pedestrian friendly areas are often greeted with suspicion: if you can't drive there, go somewhere else.

Building them from the ground up (as opposed to the disasterous urban renewal schemes noted above) might work but (I suspect) only with the inclusion of a robust, well-established public tranportation system. But that costs lots of money, takes a long time and is usually opposed by suburbanites who want more money for highways.

At least that's been my experience in the south and west.

Posted by: Dr_Maturin on 26 Jan 05

Build from the ground up works if the places are really attractive. Orenco Station is like that.

Another place pedestrialization can work: Abandoned urban areas gentrified^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hreclaimed by bohemians and yuppies. I'm thinking of portions of downtown Portland, which has lots of public transit.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 26 Jan 05



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