April 02, 2019

Designing Livable Neighbourhoods

Smart Resilient Communities

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Late last year, my family and I moved to a new home in an emerging neighbourhood because of its close proximity to a large park. We imagined how our lives would become more active and healthier as we could use this public space year-round with our young daughter.

 

However, the reality of our experience, at least in the wintertime, has been slightly different. As large piles of snow accumulated, piling up on the boulevard that separated the park from our street, we found accessing the public space nearly impossible. It was a pity that this beautiful amenity, which is one of the reasons we chose to move into this neighbourhood, was almost inaccessible for a quarter of the year. Moreover, considering Winnipeg is a winter city, it seems particularly surprising that a park that has a walking trail for outdoor activities would be so difficult to access—and I’m speaking as an able-bodied person! I can’t imagine how difficult it is for someone with accessibility issues.

Safety is a concern as well in this park. Vehicles that drive up and down the main road in our neighbourhood will often drive fast or refuse to yield to pedestrians. At times it feels unsafe to cross the street to go to the park, especially with my child who enjoys chasing after little birds or running towards the playground without a thought to her surroundings. Inaccessibility and safety are significant deterrents in using this public park, but at the same time, it's not unique in those respects. Winnipeg—as a whole—is not a livable city, often inspiring unlivable communities where, among other things, vehicles have more importance over pedestrians and cyclists. According to Liveable City, an organization based out of San Francisco, a “city should make walking a joy—safe, comfortable, interesting. The quality of sidewalks, parks, and plazas—life “between” buildings—is one of the ultimate signs of a healthy city. (They) recommend measures such as buffering pedestrians from traffic, reducing the speed of traffic on residential streets, and widening sidewalks.”

"Making cities livable requires planners and developers to focus on people rather than cars and high-rise buildings" – Aldo Santin, Winnipeg Free Press.

Last fall acclaimed Danish Architect Jan Gehl came to Winnipeg. He was a keynote speaker at the Liveable Cities in the 21st Century conference held in Winnipeg. I was lucky to get a ticket to this sold-out event and enjoyed listening to him speak. I agree with his central message on improving the quality of urban life by re-orienting city design by focusing on the pedestrian and cyclist experience. Gehl’s ideas of focusing on designing for people rather than vehicles resonated with me. I think these ideas should be applied in all neighbourhood design. As noted by Aldo Santin in his article, Gehl highlighted that after the Second World War, planners were preoccupied with automobiles and they did not consider how people would interact with their environment.

You can see the evidence of vehicle-focused planning all throughout Winnipeg—especially at the iconic intersection of Portage and Main. Voters recently rejected opening it up to pedestrians after it was barricaded for 40 years. In 1979, the city made a deal with a major developer to build a hotel and an expansive underground shopping concourse. Opening up the intersection to pedestrians was put to a plebiscite at last year’s mayoral vote. The “No” side won with 65 per cent over the “Yes” side with 35 per cent. So today, this iconic intersection still has barriers to prevent people from crossing it, allowing vehicles to keep driving along without worrying about pedestrians crossing. Ever.

My wife and I work downtown, often driving through this intersection on our way home to the suburbs. If this intersection and our city centre had been designed to be more pedestrian friendly and livable, we would perhaps stay downtown for a drink before taking a bus home. We should do more to make our city and communities more livable.

So, what is a livable community?

According to a recent article that I read online, some of the critical elements of a livable community that AARP outlined, included:

  • A livable community is one that is safe and secure, has affordable and appropriate housing and transportation options, and offers supportive community features and services.
  • Once in place, those resources enhance personal independence; allow residents to age in place; and foster residents' engagement in the community's civic, economic, and social life.
  • It is important that the community and workplace have features that promote physical independence and increase opportunities for community engagement as the population ages.
  • The physical design of workplaces, communities, and facilities greatly enhances individual independence, dignity, and choice.
  • Accessibility features, types of activities, facilities, housing, road design, walkability, transportation, and supportive services influence whether a person can remain in the community and for how long.

I used to live in Bridgwater Forest, which was designed as a livable community. Back in 2014, my wife and I were able to purchase our first home, a single bedroom condo, in this beautiful neighbourhood. We enjoyed taking walks along the many kilometres of active pathways and sidewalks that were intended to promote healthy living. We felt safer with the many roundabouts located throughout the neighbourhoods that calmed traffic. We also felt delighted with having access to the many playgrounds and outdoor sitting areas in this neighbourhood. Another aspect that made this neighbourhood so livable was the Town Centre that included a large grocery store and drug store and coffee shop. The only reason that we moved away from Bridgwater to our current neighbourhood was that we needed a bigger home after the birth of our daughter.

While the new neighbourhood that we live in now has many elements of a livable community, including a compact layout, a beautiful park and a range of affordable housing options. I also wish more emphasis and design was placed on people and pedestrians, rather than automobiles. For example, the street that we live on does not have a sidewalk, and to access the park, we must walk on the road, avoiding parked cars and looking out for vehicles that turn onto the street. Having lived in Bridgwater Forest and worked with our team of designers on amenities for other neighbourhoods in Bridgwater, I think about ways to redesign our neighbourhood to be more pedestrian-friendly.

Now putting on my designer cap, the things that could have been done in our neighbourhood to make it more livable would include calming the traffic down the main thoroughfare, which separates all of the homes located in first two phases of this development from the park. Also, sidewalks could have been added to all of the streets, making it safer for people to walk in their neighbourhood. Also, by adding a crosswalk for people to access the park and installing a pedestrian node would help increase the walkability of the neighbourhood. Along the main thoroughfare, the sidewalks could be widened, and the street could be narrowed for cars, by moving visitor parking away from the front of a block of multifamily homes to a parking area that could have been designed to be located in the park. This would allow room for a dedicated bike lane and improving the road safety for both motorists and cyclists. Lessening the number of vehicles on the street would increase the visibility for drivers to see pedestrians. As well, it would increase the opportunity for people to use active transportation (human power). By encouraging a healthier lifestyle, it would give residents and visitors opportunities to improve their physical health.

Improving safety and active transportation in communities is the essential goals of making it more livable. The city should offer incentives to developers of neighbourhoods, so they plan and design them to be livable and increase the opportunities for active transportation, improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists, and decrease automobile dependence. Also, the possibility for developers to encourage healthier lifestyles, green up their communities and reduce the speed of traffic through their neighbourhoods would be good for promoting their community as a destination for future residents. It is crucial to make communities and neighbourhoods safer and more accessible to move through for all people, especially those that have issues with mobility, such as the disabled, the elderly and children. It’s also essential to design places that can be accessed year around, and especially in the winter months when people spend more time indoors or in vehicles.

What are some of the ways that you think your community or neighbourhood can be designed to be more livable and how would you go about improving where you live? Encourage you to leave a comment or thought.