Proper city planning crucial for healthier citizens

By Jorge Heine Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/14 20:38:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

China's progress over the past 40 years has led to one of the most rapid urbanization processes ever. Today some 55 percent of the Chinese population lives in cities, and it is projected that this will reach 70 percent in the near future.

There are many benefits that accrue from living in cities, but there are also costs. One of them has to do with health. As China aims to keep the size of its cities at a manageable level and slow down migration from small and medium-sized cities to the first-tier ones, it ought to keep this in mind.

One of the most exciting fields in urban studies today is that of the relationship between urban planning and design and health. Our health is to a large degree determined by our lifestyle, which in turn depends on how we move about our daily lives.

Humans were not made to sit all day in front of a computer screen, nor to sit in a car several hours a day. First, we were hunters and gatherers, moving about, roaming in the forests looking for fruits or animals. But even as we moved from nomads to farmers and then to city dwellers, we would always walk - to the market, to the school, to the temple, to the public square.

In fact, until 100 years ago or so, cities were made for pedestrians, and to lesser degree for horse carriages. It is only in the last century that cities have been planned for something else - for cars.

This conception of the city, based on the use of fossil fuels to provide it with energy, on the car as the main means of transport, and on the high-rise tower as the preferred form of housing has reached a crisis point.

Let me point out to you the example of Santiago, the capital city of Chile. Blessed with a Mediterranean climate, in a beautiful valley at the foot of the Andes Mountains, surrounded by some excellent agricultural land, crossed by the Mapocho river, it has much going for it, and was considered until not too long ago a high-quality-of-life city. Yet, in the past few decades, it has been affected by what is known as urban malaise - pollution, traffic congestion, excessive noise, too much cement and not enough green spaces.

Thus, over the past three years the governor of Santiago's Metropolitan Region, Claudio Orrego, has applied a different set of policies, aimed at making Santiago a city for people, not for cars.

We still have a long way to go, and Santiago is far from being a paragon of a healthy city. But it confronts challenges similar to the cities here in China, and there are some experiences that can be shared. If China wants to keep its small- and medium-sized cities attractive and livable, it should keep these propositions in mind.

The first is about transport and mobility: aim for multimodal transport systems, not for car-centered ones. Transportation systems are to a city what the blood circulation system is to the body. And making cities for cars, clunky, inefficient vehicles that take up enormous amounts of space to transport often no more than a single individual, and are used no more than 5 percent of the time, has meant that the arteries of our cities are more and more clogged, leading to the waste of many hours of commuting every day. As the saying goes, "You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic."

As Jan Gehlen has pointed out, an automobile consumes 60 times more energy than a bike, and up to 20 times more than a pedestrian. Neither bikes nor pedestrians produce traffic jams. Their space demands are much smaller. In two bike lanes of two meters wide each, you can accommodate up to 10,000 bikes per hour. A two-way traffic street can accommodate no more than 1,000 to 2,000 automobiles per hour, at peak times. Thus, promoting cycling has been a key activity of Orrego, and the building of a 42-kilometer bike lane along the Mapocho river a showcase project.

The second has to do with space: reclaim streets for pedestrians. The most valuable commodity in a city is space. Yet, much public space today is allocated to roads and thus to cars. If you can avoid it, don't build highways through your cities. It only destroys them and the urban fabric. Cities are about streets, not roads. The measure of the quality of a city is the degree to which it invites you to walk in it. And the challenge for mayors today is how to make streets more attractive and enticing.

And here Orrego has come up with another alternative, what is known as "plazas de bolsillo," or pocket squares, a weapon within the arsenal of what is known as "tactical urbanism." In an ideal world, mayors would build as many green spaces, including parks and plazas, as they could. In practice, they are often constrained by all sorts of factors - regulations, budgets, ownership of the land.

Yet, there are often empty, unused lots in cities, that may or may not be built up in the foreseeable future. Why not use these empty spaces to create temporary, but attractive plazas, with no permanent structures, where people congregate for lunch outdoors, where children can play, and that otherwise provide some color and life to the concrete jungle that passes for downtown in many cities? These pocket squares have been a great success in downtown Santiago.

A third proposition is about density: medium density is better than high-density. Yes, in principle, urban density is better than urban spread - it is in the end cheaper, and makes for more enriching and rewarding environments. High rises, and even skyscrapers, are here to stay, and they perform and will perform a significant role in responding to the housing needs of our city dwellers in the new century. But this does not mean that towers are the only response. Between the high-rise tower and the suburban villa with a front and a back yard there are many intermediate solutions - four-story apartment buildings and townhouses, among others. The random emergence of towers in former garden city neighborhoods has a highly deleterious effect on whole city areas, and is often the result of developers run amok.

Land planning is a critical tool here. We have found this in the western part of Santiago, which until the 1990s had a very traditional type of Spanish-style housing. It was deregulated for greater density, and has ended up with monstrous 20-story towers that destroy whole neighborhoods, with a loss of sunshine and privacy as a result. The key point is that medium-density urban design works better than high density.

Human scale is what livable, high-quality-of-life, healthy cities are all about.

The author is the ambassador of Chile to China. This is an edited version of a speech given at the Healthy Cities Mayors' Forum organized by WHO and China's Ministry of Health held recently in Weihai, Shandong Province. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

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