Activity-friendly neighbourhoods: urban design can promote walking

Following our recent post discussing the new report launched by Arup, Cities Alive: Towards a walking world, further research to support links between good urban design and well-being has been published in The Lancet – see reference link below. The Arup report, is a collaboration between Arup’s Foresight + Research + Innovation, Transport Consulting and Urban Design teams, and discusses the benefits of walkable cities – economic, social, environmental and political, setin out measures for improving walkability.

Abstract: Urban design can promote walking: people physically active for up to 1.5 hours more per week in activity-friendly neighbourhoods

Source: Sallis, J.F., Cerin, E., Conway, T.L., Adams, M.A., Frank, L.D., Pratt, M., Salvo, D., Schipperijn, J., Smith, G., Cain, K.L., Davey, R., Kerr, J., Lai, P.-C., Mitáš, J., Reis, R., Sarmiento, O.L., Schofield, G., Troelsen, J., Van Dyck, D., De Bourdeaudhuij, I. & Owen, N. (2016). Physical activity in relation to urban environments in 14 cities worldwide: a cross-sectional study. The Lancet. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)01284-2. This study is available at:



People who live in the most ‘activity-friendly’ neighbourhoods do up to 1.5 hours more physical activity a week than those in the least supportive neighbourhoods. This is according to a new international study which measured levels of exercise — mainly walking for recreation or transport — in relation to the urban environment across 14 diverse cities. The results show how urban design — such as parks and local amenities — can promote healthy lifestyles which also bring environmental benefits, such as better air quality, through reduced car use.

Globally, physical inactivity is responsible for 5 million deaths per year through its effects on diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers1. It is known that people who live in very ‘walkable’ neighbourhoods tend to be more physically active than those in less walkable areas. The WHO thus recommends improving the urban environment to support ‘active transport’ (walking and cycling) and recreation in its Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health.

This study further explores the link between the urban environment and exercise by providing objective data on activity levels in a diverse range of cities. Data were used from 6 822 participants in the study who wore accelerometers around their waist for 4–7 days. Accelerometers assess vertical movement of the body and mainly detect walking. Participants lived in one of 14 cities across 10 countries (Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, China (Hong Kong), Mexico, New Zealand, the UK and the USA).

The researchers related activity levels to urban features which are thought to affect walkability found in a 0.5 km and a 1 km zone around each participant’s home. Six features were considered: number of residential dwellings; number of street junctions (accessible to pedestrians); mixture of land use (indicating easy access to retail areas and public buildings); number of bus, rail or ferry stops/stations; distance to nearest public transport stop/station; and number of parks.

Average activity levels varied greatly by neighbourhood. Participants with the most activity-supportive environmental features within 1 km of their home did up to 89 minutes more physical activity a week, on average, than those in 1 km zones with the fewest activity-supportive features. For 0.5 km zones, the difference in activity levels was 68 minutes. On average, participants across all 14 cities did 37 minutes of physical activity per day. Baltimore, USA, had the lowest average rate of activity (29.2 minutes per day) and Wellington, New Zealand, had the highest (50.1 minutes per day).

Three urban features were strongly associated with higher activity levels:

  • High residential density. This is needed to support important components of a walkable neighbourhood, such as local shops and a frequent public transport service.
  • High density of public transport stops. Interestingly, distance to the nearest transport stop was not associated with activity levels. Instead, the researchers suggest that a high number of transport options is more likely to meet residents’ needs and thus increase the likelihood of walking to a stop. Good access to public transport is necessary for a less car-dependent lifestyle, they state.
  • Parks. These are not just locations for recreation in themselves, but destinations that people choose to walk to.

Studies usually associate mixed land use with physical activity, but not in this case. However, the researchers say this may be due to limitations of their method; for example, they did not map unregistered shops, such as informal markets, which are common in middle-income countries. Street-junction density, which indicates connectivity, showed some influence on walking levels, but results on this feature were mixed.

Importantly, the links between built environment and physical activity were generally similar across all the cities. This suggests that improving urban design is a solution that applies everywhere.

The study recommends that decision makers in the public health, environmental, transport and park sectors work together to promote physical activity as way of cutting air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and energy usage, whilst achieving health benefits.

  1. Lee, I.M., Shiroma E.J., Lobelo F., Puska P., Blair S.N., & Katzmarzyk P.T. (2012). Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. Lancet, 380: 219–99.


Ecosystem services: Working with nature

case study3In addition to being of value in their own right, natural systems and processes provide a broad range of goods and services which help to support human health, well-being and economic success. Ecosystem services are the benefits which nature provides for human well-being, society and the economy. They include:

  • Provisioning services: the goods people obtain from ecosystems, including food, water, fuel, raw materials and genetic resources
  • Regulating services which control conditions, including the processes that regulate the climate and water flows; air, water and soil quality; pollination; and pests and diseases
  • Cultural services, including aesthetic, spiritual, educational and recreational benefits
  • Supporting services, which provide the basic infrastructure for life, including photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, and soil formation

Understanding and working with nature where possible will enable us to achieve more sustainable outcomes. This means taking a more proactive approach than assessing and mitigating the environmental impacts of policies, strategies and projects through formal processes including Strategic Environmental Assessment, Sustainability Appraisal, Environmental Impact Assessment and Habitat Regulations Appropriate Assessment.

The ecosystem approach is a holistic and inclusive approach to planning and decision making, which takes account of the benefits and services we derive from nature and seeks to maintain or enhance them. It involves understanding the ecosystem services provided across a given area; valuing them appropriately; and involving the relevant stakeholders to make balanced and effective land management decisions, based on the best possible understanding of the implications.

It is important that ecosystem services are accounted for in decision-making for their own sake, but in these economically constrained times, applying the ecosystem approach will also help ensure that limited funds are targeted at the interventions which will deliver the maximum benefits to the environment, people, and the economy.

The ecosystem approach has been fundamental to the development of the Partnership Management Plan for the South Downs National Park. An overview of the ecosystem services provided by the National Park is included in the introduction to the document, and this understanding informs the policies on farming, forestry and woodland, water, tourism and other aspects of management.

The ecosystem approach is reflected in major projects in the National Park, including the South Downs Way Ahead Nature Improvement Area. This £3 million project is bringing together farmers, community groups, government bodies, research organisations, charities and local businesses to protect, restore and reconnect endangered chalk down land, enhance biodiversity and improve water quality.

In addition to informing planning and decision making, applying this kind of thinking can help to identify, develop and raise funding for projects which support adaptation to climate change and sea-level rise while enhancing the natural environment and benefiting local communities. The Medmerry coastal realignment scheme in Sussex is a great example of what can be achieved by working with nature (see case study).

When the social and economic benefits provided by the natural environment are clear, their value can be estimated and used to make the business case for funding or direct payments to those who help to maintain them.

Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes provide incentives to farmers and landowners to manage the land in a way which will deliver these services to an agreed standard through a voluntary agreement. A number of pilot studies have been undertaken across England, including the Slowing the Flow project in Pickering, North Yorkshire, which sought to reduce flood risk downstream and improve water and soil quality, by changing land management practices and planting additional woodlands to slow the flow of water through the river catchment. This approach builds on established schemes such as Environmental Stewardship and the Woodland Grant Scheme which are already widely taken up by landowners.

Design with nature

Case study: Medmerry managed realignment, West Sussex

The following case study is part of the No Regrets: Planning for Sea Level Rise and Climate Change and Investing in Adaptation Good Practice Guide sponsored by the Southern Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, August 2015. Local authorities and other organisations involved in planning, decision-making and infrastructure investment are encouraged to follow these case studies and plan for the long-term future of coastal communities in the South East of England and further afield.

Medmerry is the largest coastal realignment scheme on the open coast in the UK. It is sited on the west side of the Manhood Peninsula, which juts out into the English Channel south of Chichester. This is a flat coast line protected by shingle beaches, which are vulnerable to breaching and over-topping in storm conditions, resulting in regular flooding by the sea. Rather than building up the beaches to ever higher levels, as sea levels rise, the Agency decided to work with nature.

Design with nature3

The scheme involved building up some 7km of new earth walls inland, breaching the existing shingle beach and forming a large new saltmarsh habitat. This helps to absorb wave energy and manage flood risk for 350 homes, two holiday parks, and a sewage treatment works. It also provides important compensation for loss of intertidal saltmarsh habitat elsewhere, allowing other flood defence schemes to proceed around the Solent.

The new habitat is now an RSPB Reserve with extensive walks and cycle tracks for people to enjoy and benefits for local businesses. It is a model for win-win climate change adaptation, combining improved flood defences with new natural habitats and opportunities for recreation and business on the coast.

The £28 million scheme was carried out by the Environment Agency from 2011 to 2013. At all stages, the scheme was developed in close consultation with a stakeholder group embracing a wide range of local interests.


An Alternative Garden Bridge for London?

“Get walkability right and so much of the rest will follow” — Jeff Speck, “Walkable City”, 2012

garden bridge1

Allies and Morrison’s proposal is based on reimagining the existing infrastructure  of James Cubitt’s 1869 designed Blackfriars Bridge by using spare capacity to accommodate a through public garden of similar size of the proposed Garden Bridge, while still providing the vital north-south link for vehicular and cycle traffic along the Blackfriars Rd – Farringdon Rd axis. The Allies and Morrison team state, “By consolidating both the east and west pavements into one larger 14m wide pavement on the west side, we could create a brilliant pedestrianised garden.”

This alternative design would still offer dramatic views of St Paul’s and the City to the east and Westminster to the west and offers a positive response to the Mayor for London’s recent publication Public London: Creating the best public realm – authored by Peter Murray, Fred Manson and Pam Alexander.  The Mayor’s ambitions for the creation of new public spaces and places in London are to, “bring public transport, walking and cycling together to create high quality public realm.”

Using the existing Blackfriars infrastructure connects the north and south shores of the Thames using existing infrastructure thus providing increased capacity in pedestrian access between The City to the north and Southwark and Elephant and Castle to the south whilst creating a green space for commuters plus additional green infrastructure capacity for London. The provision of additional pedestrian space also links with the latest ‘Cities Alive’ report, a collaboration between Arup’s Foresight + Research + Innovation, Transport Consulting and Urban Design teams.  The report ‘Cities Alive: Towards a walking world’ discusses the benefits of walkable cities – economic, social, environmental and political – and sets out measures for improving walkability.  “Creating safe and efficient transportation systems, liveable environments, a sense of place and community, and smart and responsive cities will all help to make walking a normal part of everyday life and the natural choice for shorter journeys.”

garden bridge2

This Blackfriars Bridge Garden concept celebrates existing infrastructure heritage just like New York’s Highline Parkway . Allies and Morrison claims that their proposal does not require extensive construction and can be delivered minus the initial cost of construction of a new bridge whilst connecting two areas of London where there is an existing need for additional commuter capacity. “It would provide 40,000 sq ft of new green space. It would remain public and accessible to all, seamlessly integrated into the existing public realm on both sides of the River without obstructing any of its views of St Paul’s. This light touch approach would be carbon neutral, and together with the cycle superhighway and solar panelled roof of Blackfriars Station, would be at the heart of a global exemplar for sustainable infrastructure.”

Source Text and images : June 2016.


Research: Nature in urban environments reduces stress

“We believe that greater priority needs to be given to prevention of ill health in public health and social care. All those involved in creating healthy places – public health professionals, planners and landscape architects – need to recognise that landscape has enormous potential to improve our health and wellbeing.”

Landscape Institute.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 10.15.21

Source: Honold, J., Lakes, T., Beyer, R. & van der Meer, E. (2015). Restoration in Urban Spaces: Nature Views From Home, Greenways, and Public Parks. Environment and Behavior. 1-30. DOI: 10.1177/0013916514568556.

Urban nature — such as trees and public parks — is beneficial to human health. A number of studies have found that living close to nature can have immediate positive effects on mental and physical health. However, the longer term health impact of urban nature remains poorly understood. This study investigated how exposure to nature affects health in residents of two inner city neighbourhoods in Berlin. The researchers investigated the links between different kinds of urban nature, including green spaces and views of vegetation from the home, and health. To do this, they assessed life satisfaction, perceived general health and levels of cortisol — commonly known as the stress hormone — in hair samples from 32 participants.

Changed patterns of cortisol in the blood have been linked to depression and psychological stress. Over time, elevated levels of cortisol suppress the immune system and can therefore also contribute to other illness. The authors hypothesised that the amount and diversity of vegetation visible from the home would affect health. They also thought that more regular use of public green spaces could encourage better health.

They found that views of vegetation from the home (as assessed by photographs) and the use of green spaces (determined by interview) were linked to the amount of cortisol in participants’ hair. Participants’ hair cortisol levels were lowest when their view was of both a high vegetation quantity and diversity. No significant link was found between the view from the home and self-reported general health or life satisfaction.

When assessing the use of green spaces, the researchers found one of the most frequently visited areas to be a local canal with a highly vegetated trail. People who used this trail at least once a week had significantly lower cortisol levels than less frequent users and reported higher life satisfaction, although they did not differ in general health.

Overall, this study suggests that exposure to urban nature in different forms could be related to lower cortisol levels and better life satisfaction, which corresponds with findings made in other countries and continents.

These results provide important considerations for urban development and suggest that adding diverse vegetation to residential streets and backyards, and developing more urban greenways, has the potential to improve human health. The authors recommend that local authorities use this information when designing sustainable and healthy urban areas.

While the authors do note limitations to the study, including sample size, the methods used to analyse vegetation and the extent to which cortisol correlates with stress and health outcomes, their findings have been reinforced by other research. They also propose that hair cortisol analysis could provide a promising new health indicator for future research.

The Dalston Eastern Curve Garden in east London is a thriving community garden, developed on a small piece of derelict railway land by landscape architects J & L Gibbons, with muf art/architecture and Exyzt. The video shows some of the improvements in community health and wellbeing that the garden has brought, providing an oasis in the heart of a busy, noisy, high-density part of the city, where public green space is severely lacking.

This is the first in a series of Landscape Institute videos on landscape and health, featuring some of the landscape projects that illustrated the 2013 publication ‘Public health and landscape: creating healthy places’.

Can ‘sponge cities’ solve China’s urban flooding problem?

The following edited article, ‘Can ‘sponge cities’ solve China’s urban flooding problem?’ by Wade Shepard first appeared in Citiscope. For further information on China’s ‘sponge park’ design read our earlier post, ‘Green Sponge’ Stormwater Park which featured Qunli Stormwater Park in Heilongjiang Province, China

China fdlooding 1

Source: An improvised pontoon bridge,Wuhan  PHOTO: WANG HE/GETTY IMAGES

From September to December 2013, the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters, China conducted research on flood control and countermeasures. According to the results, 641 cities are at danger of flooding in China.  At China’s Central Government Conference on Urbanization in 2013, President Xi Jinping announced that cities should act “like sponges.” This proclamation came with substantial funding to experiment with ways cities can absorb precipitation through permeable pavements, rain gardens and wetlands, or reuse the water locally for irrigation, parks or for drinking.

China is now poised to incorporate sponge-city concepts into its ambitious city building program. By 2015, the Guiding Opinions of the General Office of the State Council on Advancing the Construction of Sponge Cities was published to further facilitate the construction of sponge cities. China’s State Council announced a new set of urbanization guidelines in February as a response to complaints that the country’s cities have grown too large, too fast, and without the proper amount of quality planning. The guidelines state that new urban developments should have sponge city-like water-retention capabilities, essentially making this strategy a new national standard.

China fdlooding stats

China is currently undergoing its worst flooding in 20 years. More than 300 people have died and over half a million have been displaced across dozens of provinces in both the north and south of the country.  Ponds, rivers and wetlands have been replaced with pavement, buildings and sidewalks. More than 40,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) were newly urbanized in China over the past 35 years, as the number of cities climbed from 193 to 653.   This rapidly encroaching urbanisation stops rain from being absorbed into the soil below. That increases runoff, which can grow to flood-like proportions as it flows downhill in even moderate storms.

While China’s drainage network of mostly conventional sewer systems grew 20-fold since 1981, it hasn’t kept pace with the expanding development above the surface. In 2013 alone, 230 of these cities were hit by severe flooding, according to the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MoHURD). The situation is only expected to get worse as a changing climate triggers more extreme rain events.


The Chinese government selected an initial batch of 16 cities for pilot testing in 2015. An additional 14 cities are being added. Each city in this program is allocated RMB 400 to 600 million ($US 60 to 90 million). Cities such as Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Wuhan all have large scale projects underway.

In Yuelai New City, Chongqing the pavement absorbs the water, sucking it up into the ground beneath. If you were to pour out a bottle of water onto the ground water would immediately soak into the pavement and into the soil below, where it can then permeate down into the shallow aquifer or seep into nearby rivers, ponds or lakes. This porous pavement also feels different on your feet.

Yuelai New City is one of China’s most prominent emerging sponge cities and is one of the original 16 pilot sites and demonstrates creative thinking about water. The landscaping around the edges of the center blur right into the untamed foliage of the surrounding wooded hillside. Permeable parking lots are covered in gardens, with bushes separating each parking space rather than painted lines. Sponge cities are verdant places, focusing on nature based solutions, blending natural features and the city together. They also are wet places, and there will typically be a network of canals, ponds, lakes, and wetland parks, which distribute water throughout the development.

China fdlooding 2

Source: gettyimages

After an initial round of implementation, some of these sponge-city projects were tested by MoHURD. In terms of flood prevention, researchers found that 85 percent of rain runoff could be controlled. In addition, the presence of retained water, well-hydrated soil, and foliage also has the effect of counteracting the urban “heat island” phenomenon. According to Li Zhongwei, the director of D+H Scape landscape architecture firm, these strategies actually cool the air by two or three degrees centigrade.

The sponge-city concept is likely to work best if it can be implemented widely across broad urban areas. It has to be part of a holistic urban plan, not just some permeable concrete here or an extra-absorptive gutter there. That makes blank-canvas “new cities” that are so prevalent in China — like Yuelai New City — prime testing grounds.

“A sponge city is a system, it is not one part. You do a pilot park, you do a pilot neighborhood, it doesn’t help. You have to make sure the whole city is doing that. So it needs huge infrastructure. It’s not a small thing.”

Source: Li Zhongwei, Director, D+H Scape Landscape Architects

On the other hand, for the sponge-city notion to really make a difference, existing cities will need to be gradually retrofitted. That won’t be easy or cheap, with all the hard-wired street grids, pipes, tunnels and other existing infrastructure that Chinese cities have already built. There’s only one way to start, though, and that’s to begin experimenting.

“Most current [sponge city] projects are still very local and in a pilot phase,” says Harry den Hartog, an urban designer and researcher at Tongji University in Shanghai. “The current flooding issues make clear that more action is required urgently, especially in the more poor and vulnerable regions.”

“China’s urban construction was carried out at too fast a pace,” says Jia Haifeng, associate professor with Tsinghua University’s environmental science and engineering department. Officials have tended to focus on visible projects such as roads, bridges and housing, he said. “They emphasized infrastructure above ground, but not so much infrastructure below ground.”

Cuningar Loop: a new woodland park in Glasgow


Previously featured on the LIS blog,  Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games: Woodland Park Legacy , the Cuningar Loop is a £5.7 million Legacy 2014 project that is transforming 15 hectares of derelict land on the banks of the River Clyde into a woodland park. The park was being launched to the public with three ‘Come and Try’ events ahead of its grand opening in spring 2016. The new woodland at Cunigar Loop is one of 14 supported by Commonwealth Woods in and around Glasgow as a legacy from the Commonwealth Games held in Glasgow in 2014. The 14 Commonwealth Woods in Glasgow link up with the 54 countries in the Commonwealth, through teaching and learning in Glasgow schools.

The new woodland park sits opposite to residential development, The Village, previously the Athlete’s Village at Glasgow 2014. 15,000 trees have been planted including native trees such as oak, silver birch and blossom, along with some more exotic trees. Landscape architects, Davies White have designed the adventure play area, which has a central feature with a range of smaller play items including a zip slide and den making area to create challenging play activities for children and young people.


Finished in spring 2016, the woodland park features an extensive path network, an Activity Zone with a bike skills area, bouldering park, adventure play and woodland workout. There is a boardwalk that runs along the River Clyde to connect with nature, picnic areas, a large meadow and outdoor classroom.

The next big piece of work to take place is the design and build of Cuningar footbridge. Clyde Gateway is working with Glasgow City Council to design and deliver the development of the 100 metre steel and timber footbridge which will connect the new woodland park to the new residential development, as well as Dalmarnock and Bridgeton communities.

Crowd-sourced data harnessed to improve flood response in Jakarta

Following the recent post, ‘Flood-risk communications should be specific, tailored and utilise social networks’ a project based in SE Asia’s Jakarta demonstrates how social media can be utilised to capture flood related data, enhancing early warning systems for the city.

The metropolis of Jakarta sits in a delta with thirteen rivers and eleven kilometers of canals. One-hundred-year-old floodgates and increasing canalization of its main river adds to the unpredictability of the city’s complex hydrology – and uncertainty for the people that live along the water’s edge.  28 million live in greater Jakarta and each year the city’s population has to deal with the inevitable flooding the comes from the monsoon rains, which are made worse when any of the city’s locks, canals, gates and pumps that diverted the water around the city and out to sea fail.

Dr Etienne Turpin and Dr Tomas Holderness from the University of Wollongong, Australia’s SMART Infrastructure Facility have developed, a system that maps flooding in real-time using crowd-sourced data from Twitter to help emergency response agencies make time-critical decisions and coordinate response efforts. The web-based platform runs on open source software developed by the SMART Infrastructure Facility, called CogniCity, which turns the geotagged Tweets into valuable data.

jakarta flood

“You have 28 million people sitting in a large bowl and when it rains that bowl fills up,” Dr Tomas Holderness told ABC radio. “You can’t evacuate people, [you can only] move them around and put them in the driest place you can.” Their solution came from tapping into Jakartans’ existing communications habits. 2 per cent of the world’s Twitter traffic comes from the capital Jakarta, alone.

The social media platform was already used in some organic form as residents warned each other of rising flood waters or parts of the city to avoid. Researchers harnessed that information then verify and collate it to provide a more complete, real-time image of the situation. A pilot study was conducted during the 2014-2015 monsoon season in collaboration with the Jakarta Emergency Management Agency (BPBD DKI Jakarta), and Twitter Inc., forming a world-first collaboration between Twitter, a university, and a disaster management agency.

jakarta flood2

“We ask people on Twitter to tell us the situation where they are right now. We’re not passively listening or collecting Tweets, we listen for keywords ‘flood’, or ‘banjir’ in Indonesian, and we send them an automated message asking if they are experiencing flooding and if so to drop us a message and photo to our [Twitter] account @petajkt. We put that on a publicly available map so everybody can see that information in real-time.”

The team is looking to see how version 2.0 of their flood maps will improve emergency response and community engagement. “Now we’ve got a map that’s connecting the government’s formal information system and the informal information from social media all into one space,” says Tomas Holderness, co-founder of “It’s the connection of all those pieces in one pipe that’s never really happened before. The point of it all is to build an information ecosystem that improves resiliency in disaster situations that’s enabled by open software and open data. It’s a really important point and something we’re pioneering in many ways with this project.” The way in which residents and emergency responders engage with the system is having a tremendous impact that would be impossible to achieve through traditional infrastructure engineering. Further info:
Further information via Raymond Tirtawijaya,
“Deriving from the idea of making Jakarta a Smart City, The Pemprov (municipality) DKI Jakarta under the current government initiated, Jakarta Smart City. It is a one stop portal where the transparency and up to date information is made accessible from everywhere and for everyone. We are talking particularly for people of Jakarta. The hope is to that openness of information will stop misuse and corruption of the many system that runs in Jakarta, to mention a few; application to identity card, taxation system, land permit/license and price, connectivity & transportation, to crime and flood alert. The Jakarta Smart City Map is currently up and it is still going through improvement and addition of information. For particular flood control system, it always monitor the rising canal water level and will prompt the respective canal gate post to manually open or close the canal gate.”