Cities around the world are rushing to create more cycling paths in the wake of the current pandemic. Cycling is a great starting point for creating healthier cities. However, it does not end there. In this series, we'll take a look at some other key aspects of a healthy city. Today's topic is Proximity. But what is meant by proximity exactly?
authors: Gintare Norkunaite and Marianne Lefever
Previous topics in this series: #01: Child-friendly Cities
Proximity in an urbanized context means that you don't necessarily need a car to have access to all the supporting services you need to lead a comfortable and healthy life. It means you have easy access to healthy food, a job, education, and healthcare. But also to leisure opportunities like cultural events, a great public space where you can meet friends or just watch people, and green space where you can relax or work out. Proximity means that, even if you cannot walk or cycle to all of these services, at least you are able to walk to the nearest transit station and hop on public transport to get you there.
Proximity means that during a lockdown, when you are not allowed to leave your neighborhood, you can still lead a good life with access to everything you need. As many of us have experienced first hand, that is not the case in a lot of neighborhoods today. Now that using mass transit is not recommended and not everyone owns a car, it became impossible for some of us to get everything we needed.
Proximity does not just apply to high-density cities where the urban center is often already mixed-use. It is important for all scales of urban life, for cities, suburbs, and towns alike. But why is it so important? What might happen if we don't build proximity into our cities and towns?
The health impact.
Having easy access to all these basic services may sound like a nice-to-have. Is it really necessary? What is the worst that could happen? Let’s take a look.
When it comes to healthy food, a lack of proximity can create a food desert or a food swamp. These are areas where not everyone owns a car and a supermarket selling healthy and affordable food is more than a mile away. Over 2% of all USA households live in a food desert and in the UK it affects just over one million people. However, on the contrary of what we commonly think, it is not just the very rural areas that find themselves in this situation. More than 80% of affected households in the USA are actually located in big cities like NY, Chicago, or Detroit. People living in a food desert are far more likely to become overweight or get diabetes for example. Which in turn increases their healthcare spending, leaving less money on the table for healthy food, and thus creating a vicious cycle.
Living far away from our jobs leads to longer commutes and increases physical and mental health complaints. Spending more time in often congested traffic raises adrenaline levels, blood pressure, and overall stress levels. In turn, this contributes to a higher risk of stroke and cardiovascular diseases. But commuting also has an impact on our mental wellbeing causing o.a. sleep disruption and concentration issues. A Swedish study even showed that long commutes (over 45min. one-way) increase your chances of getting a divorce by 40%. And apart from immediate health impacts, traffic generated by commuting increasingly leads to congested and polluted cities. During the current lockdown, a significant drop in air pollution levels has been recorded in cities around the globe. A UK study even revealed that the improvement in air quality during the lockdown has prevented 11,000 deaths in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
The last example is the lack of public space. When we live in neighborhoods that have no qualitative public space where people can linger and interact with each other, we tend to feel disconnected and disengaged from our community. We are also more likely to feel unsafe because we don't know our neighbors. In the USA, only a good 50% of people feel like they can trust their neighbors. All this contributes to raised levels of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. But it also makes parents even less inclined to let their children play outside. We already discussed how that influences their development in part #1 of this series. Different initiatives have started to claim back public space, like the City Repair movement in the USA, and the global Placemaking movement.
Paris is tackling it at an even larger scale. It plans to remove 72% of on-street parking from the city center. The gained space can be used for wider sidewalks, terraces, greenery, water, and biodiversity to achieve an attractive streetscape. The reduction in car traffic would allow some intersections to be transformed into pedestrian plazas. Some of these interventions would be permanent, and some, like car-free schools environment, would operate only during school hours.
Source: Paris en Commun
These are just a few examples of how our health & wellbeing is impacted when we don't build proximity into our communities. So what else can we do about it, apart from painting our local intersection or removing streetside parking? How can we build proximity into the core of our cities?
Proximity put into practice
Many cities around the world are recognizing the importance of the proximity concept. Each of them has their own strategies for so-called Chrono-urbanism, which focuses on providing all daily facilities within a 15 or 20 min walk from your house. Ottawa urges for intensification by creating residential clusters with schools, grocery stores, public transit, parks, and libraries nearby. Alike, Portland aims to add these functions to affordable housing neighborhoods. Paris pushes this concept even further. It wishes to mix 6 functions within 15 min walking distance: living, working, supplying, caring, learning, enjoying, and finding fulfillment in life. These could happen both on a building level (mixing offices with schools, healthcare centers with bars) or by bringing smaller versions of these functions closer to communities in “citizen kiosks”. These kiosks are neighborhood hubs, staffed by city employees, offering different small scale city services. If a full-scale chrono-urbanism strategy seems a bit much to start with, this concept of the kiosk or neighborhood hub might be a great place to test the water.
Neighborhood hubs, the proximity pop-up.
A neighborhood hub is a place that connects (city) services to the community and strengthens bonds among community members. Think of it as a place where you pass by to pick up the book you ordered in a central library, enroll in a community football club, or even come to work once or twice a week in a neighborhood co-working space. Offices, hospitals, and libraries would not land in neighborhoods in their traditional form but rather a smaller version of it: a co-working space, a meeting room, a general practitioner office, or a library reading room as part of a café. This trend is already happening. Corona lockdown proved that remote working is possible and some companies like Facebook are already thinking to make remote working a permanent option for their senior staff members.
A neighborhood hub would be a place that residents pass daily. Citywide services like parcel delivery or shared mobility could also land there as they benefit from the proximity and density of users. Imagine, it’s a sunny spring day. You want to get some plants for your terrace. You take a 2 min walk to a neighborhood hub, rent an e-cargo bike, and ride to the gardening store. You get the soil, pots, plants you need, and - after dropping everything off at your place - return your bike to the neighborhood hub. While locking the bike at its charging station, you run into your neighbor who invites you to the street food market organized this weekend. A neighborhood hub is not necessarily a single building or a kiosk. It could be a cluster located around a public gathering space - much like an old school town square - where the city and also private organizations can provide pop-up or satellite services.
The rebirth of the dying shopping mall
Big wins can be gained in places that for decades had very little to do with proximity –shopping malls. These areas are facing mass transition. A study by Credit Swisse estimates that by 2022, 25% of shopping malls will be closed in the United States. Chrono-urbanism can bring these areas back to life by transforming them into dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods – new centers for the surrounding residential neighborhoods. A great example is Villa Italia Mall. This 130,000 sqm suburban shopping mall in Lakewood, Colorado was subdivided into 22 city blocks creating a “downtown district”. Just imagine the sheer scale of that shopping monolith. Today, it accommodates office space, green areas, a public art program, retail and 1,300 for-sale single-family residences, townhouses, and condominiums, as well as loft-style rental apartments. A free shuttle bus connects the district with a new light rail station, encouraging people from the region to leave their cars at home.
Source: PosadMaxwan.nl - In de Bogaard, Rijswijk
A similar transformation is also taking place in Europe. “In de Bogaard” - one of the first modern shopping centers in the Netherlands - is currently being transformed from a half-empty mall into a vibrant mixed-use and pedestrian-focused neighborhood. A vast 20.000sqm of retail space is removed and 2.000 new houses with complementing facilities are added. The plan envisions a car-free neighborhood, a second city center with vibrant alleys, squares, a hierarchy of parks, and (rooftop) gardens. The size of the neighborhood and its car-free character allow for unorganized sports activities to happen, like a running loop around the block and children play streets.
There are many ways we can start building proximity into our neighborhoods. In the end, though, the most important thing is that all the cycling tracks cities are installing today should also take us somewhere. They should give us access to ‘living, working, supplying, caring, learning, enjoyment, and fulfillment in life” as Paris describes it. If we still need a car to access these, then what have we gained?