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Rethinking Neighborhood Design to Promote Walking and Biking

By Catherine Maier

Published February 11, 2014

Urban Planning faculty members Daniel Hess and Hiroaki Hata, along with professor and department chair Ernest Sternberg, recently published their collaborative exploration of issues of urban and suburban vitality through the lens of pedestrian pathways in neighborhoods.

“Pathways and Artifacts: Neighborhood Design for Physical Activity,” published in the Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability, proposes a new model for residential neighborhood design that strays from the traditional grid pattern and instead offers wide pathways, often resembling medians, that link streets, neighborhoods, open space and recreational opportunities (Figure 1).

Pathways link adjoining communities.

Figure 1: Pathways link adjoining communities. Image by Hiroaki Hata

With the evolving neighborhood structure over the 20th century and into the 21st century, Hess, Hata and Sternberg were interested in how pedestrian routines have adapted to the changing times. For instance, in the past, residents walked for utilitarian purposes - getting groceries, walking to school, and going to church. Today, many of those institutions have closed, yet pedestrians remain active in their neighborhoods.

Hess describes how this shift in neighborhood infrastructure led to changes in pedestrian behavior from utilitarian to recreational: “With the number of services reduced, there had to be other explanations for pedestrianism in residential neighborhoods; we also noticed that people were walking and jogging in neighborhoods for recreation and physical activity, something that our grandparents did not do. We then explored current research and confirmed that there is now more walking throughout the U.S. for exercise than for utilitarian purposes. Thus, our research and observations sought us to reconsider the form of streets and pathways on streets.”

Traditional residential street (cross- section).

Figure 2a: Traditional residential street (cross- section). Image by Hiroaki Hata

Residential street (cross- section) with 16- foot wide pathway.

Figure 2b: Residential street (cross-section) with 16-foot-wide pathway. Image by Hiroaki Hata

This was the jumping off point for the team. With the shift in pedestrian and neighborhood interactions, they asked, ‘how might the pathway system be redesigned to coincide with and facilitate pedestrians’ new motives?’ Their proposed design revolves around shifting the traditional pattern of two sidewalks framing the street to a wider pedestrian walkway in the street median (Figures 2a- 2b). Front lawns are shortened to create room for a wider walkway with green space. Crosswalks leading to the median give pedestrians more variety in their courses by way of meandering vegetation-filled median paths. The pathways break the traditional grid pattern, leading to aesthetically pleasing ‘artifacts’ in the landscape—fountains, city monuments, historical statues—and allowing pedestrians to engage with the natural and built environment (Figure 3).

Figure 3: A grove of trees as artifact along a pathway.

Figure 3: A grove of trees as artifact along a pathway. Image by Hiroaki Hata

This model lends itself to accommodate various neighborhood needs through optimal configurations—trees, shrubbery and flower beds can line the pathways, with specialized spaces for neighborhood playgrounds. The model intends to bring back a distinct identity to each neighborhood and in turn strengthen the bonds in each community (Figures 4a-4b).

A concern in their research relates to pedestrian travel to and from median green space via crossing a lane of traffic.

Hess says the new configuration will respond to the needs of the pedestrians over the cars: “[…] Our plan counters this in three ways: (1) by providing an overall increase in the area in street rights-of-way devoted to walking, playing, resting, and we envision more planned and landscaped areas in which children can play, and (2) with pedestrians using the pathways and other public spaces in high numbers, traffic will move more slowly through a natural “traffic calming” effect, and (3) more “eyes on the street” makes it safer for everyone, including children, to cross streets and use new outdoor spaces.”

Figure 4a–4b: Various configurations of trails and pathways. Images by Hiroaki Hata

Figure 4a–4b: Various configurations of trails and pathways. Images by Hiroaki Hata

The next steps in their research include developing a neighborhood prototype, testing out their hypotheses through collaboration with a developer, and subsequently tracking pedestrians’ use of streets.

Overall, the authors hope the research thoughtfully engages citizens with not only their environment but more importantly their neighbors:

“A neighborhood is still as essential as the home; it is a public extension of domestic life, a place for human contact, safety, respite and meaning. Good neighborhood design must build on these sources of urban vitality.”