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Designing Cities for Health and Happiness

I recently attended Designing Cities for Health and Happiness, a public lecture hosted by 8-80 Cities in partnership with the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the Design Exchange. The lecture provided an enlightening overview of the role urban planning plays in creating vibrant cities and healthy communities.


Opening remarks by Gil Penalosa, Executive Director of 8-80 Cities, concluded that a great city must be good for everyone. The keynote presentation delivered by Helle Søholt, a founding partner of Gehl Architects, focused on the life between buildings. Much of urban planning does not account for the needs of daily life and that real people live, work and play in these spaces. But people will only do what is optional when space is inviting. People require stimulation and will only spend time in places that are social, cultural, recreational, healthy and fun. Ghel Architects have a history of changing behaviour through design. Søholt used examples from four quite different cities to illustrate this point:

Copenhagen, which shares many of the same geographic features of Toronto, was once a car-reliant society. Only a couple of decades later and two thirds of the population now use bicycles or public transport as the main mode of transport (with 70% of cyclists continuing to cycle in winter!)

Melbourne has considered the large population of students and residents with flexible lifestyles who use the city at all hours of the day. The introduction of steel furniture allows passersby to enjoy areas for longer periods of time. Abandoned alley and laneways were transformed to create new network of pathways and outdoor contemporary art galleries (complete with a few designated graffiti zones).

New York City, powered by Mayor Bloomberg's commitment to public health, has transformed Broadway and Times Square into pedestrian friendly boulevards.  Sidebar: the fifth annual Summer Streets occurs next month, opening up seven miles of city streets. Toronto's Celebrate Yonge is a similar, albeit much more minor initiative kicking off next month too.

Mexico City has introduced a bicycling strategy as an overwhelming 95% of all trips within the city are cyclable. Public spaces must be transformed to prioritize quality of life and inclusive accessible environments.

The lecture was followed by short presentations from a panel of local urban visionaries.  Monica Campbell (Director of Healthy Public Policy for Toronto Public Health) reiterated three points from the keynote: the need for evidence, the problem of inequity - citing many of the same issues favoured by Sir Michael Marmot - and how Toronto has led the example of the WHO's holistic Healthy City model. Associate Professor Robert Wright (Director of the Master of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Toronto's Daniels Faculty) gave an entertaining overview of the City of Toronto as a patient, with ailments approximating some of Toronto's biggest issues (including $200 billion deferred maintenance costs and impending loss of tree coverage). Shawn Micallef (writer for Spacing and Toronto Star) questioned "what about the suburbs?" and encouraged thinking about Toronto as a whole, whereas City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27) zeroed in on the history of Yonge Steet. Wong-Tam highlighed examples of retailers emphasizing heritage buildings amidst the bright lights and big billboards of Yonge and Dundas Square. Wong-Tam, who concieved Celebrate Yonge, closed the lecture by echoing the need for fair distribution of public space.


Additional Resurces:

HC Link Resources on the Built Environment

Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design

CAMH’s OSDUHS Mental Health and Well-Being Report ...
New Resource: Tools for supporting local action to...

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