I’m getting ready to volunteer for the Congress for New Urbanism conference that will be held here in Dallas at the end of the month. In the process, I decided to contact two of the speakers who will be heading up the morning runs before each day’s events begin. One of these two speakers is John Simmerman, director of Active Towns, a non-profit that looks at what makes some places “naturally” active towns and communities. I stumbled across this podcast over on Urbanism Speakeasy that features Mr. Simmerman a few years ago, shortly after another CNU conference. The podcast is worth a listen if you have time, but if not, here are a few highlights that I thought were interesting about active towns and healthy communities:
Some communities simply have normal active living as part of their DNA.
Simmerman talks about his experience living in Boulder, CO and then moving to Hawaii and the start contrast between these two places as a pedestrian and bicyclist. After living in Ann Arbor for three years and then moving to Dallas, I see a difference too. I wouldn’t consider Ann Arbor to be the epitome of a healthy community, but the design of this little college town is catered more to the pedestrian and cyclist than Dallas is. In looking at what I consider to be active towns across the country, almost all of them have a major university or college, so I wonder if having a dense population of young people plays a part of this healthy community culture and that leads me to wonder if housing a university is one of the driving elements of this organic nature of active towns.
Image Reference Downtown Ann Arbor
Other places (a majority of places, particularly those that boomed after World War II), the automobile is king and pedestrians are an afterthought.
I definitely see this with Dallas. The older parts of the city are much more pedestrian friendly by nature. Within the city limits, Dallas exploded in the 1950’s and the neighborhoods that popped up during this time, while still mostly on a grid, are more spread out and the blocks are much longer. The roads are wider and the automobile is at the forefront in connecting the residential to the commercial. Revitalized neighborhoods, like Uptown, shift back to a more pedestrian “feel”, I guess you would say, but in many ways I consider this feel to be superficial and not really what’s going on under the surface. But it’s a step in the right direction, I guess.
Active towns and communities have a desirable attribute of being vibrant and very resilient, even during the economic downturn.
Living in Dallas, a place that I wouldn’t rate too high as an active town or healthy community, actually weathered the economic downturn quite well, but I think it is important to note that the rate of affordability compared to other cities across the nation, coupled with the fact that this region is extremely business-friendly have allowed Dallas to weather the storm quite well. As more and more businesses move into North Texas, and more and more people from places that would be considered more active and healthy move here with these companies, it is critical to provide the same healthy, active standard of living.
The way we build our communities has a tremendous and powerful impact on our ability to optimize our health and wellness. It answers some of our biggest challenges as a country when we look at our health status and rising obesity rates.
This goes back to being an auto-oriented society. When we are forced to drive everywhere, we lead sedentary lifestyles. If we don’t design safe and welcoming environments that encourage people to get out and take a walk, bike ride, or other mode of physical fitness, we are staying in the same cycle and adding to the epidemic that plagues this nation.
Simmerman goes on to talk about the two phases of the Active Towns mission.
Phase 1 is to look at truly extraordinary active towns and document what makes these places special. What sort of encouragement and events took place to make these places special? What makes it special is the social aspect. The key to these facilities is it’s not just checking off a box on the list- the bike path, the shaded use path, etc.- it’s about making it attractive and welcoming so people feel like they are getting something they are missing.
I think this is critical. Planners, architects, and landscape architects often get caught up in making sure all the “boxes are checked”, when it isn’t really about that. It’s about the connections people make with one another and with the environment and it is the designer’s job to make the environment feel safe. We can’t control the organic, but we can encourage it through thoughtful design gestures.
Phase 2 is to work with communities and show the case studies from phase down while breaking through the barriers of skepticism.
Breaking down barriers is critical! People are stuck in their ways and I wonder if college towns are successful at being active towns because those walls of skepticism are so small. The younger generations are open to change and willing to have their environment reflect the lifestyles they want to lead.
Active communities are healthy from a fiscal standpoint as well. They draw in visitors and residents are really active and engaged with their community.
I think this aspect is definitely driving a shift in a lot of communities across the country. They aren’t seeing it as an earthy-crunchy, granola-eating movement. It’s a financially beneficial movement that helps communities prosper.
This needs to be a national effort.
It does need to be a national movement and we are slowly getting there. The automobile changed the nation but now we are in an era where the automobile and the pedestrian need to co-exist. This means modifying a lot of the build environment from the 1950’s to present day. We shouldn’t get rid of the car, but it should only be one of our many choices for getting around.
What is the interaction between the human and the environment?
This goes back to the social connections comment. As designers, we can’t control the social connections between people, but we can control the connection between humans and the environment and this, in turn will directly correlate with social connections between people.
So there you have it, a quick overview of the linked podcast. I’m really excited to meet and run with John Simmerman in a few weeks and share thoughts and ideas with him. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!