Wednesday, 27 February 2013

6 Ideas Every City Should Steal From Barcelona

Spain may be facing significant economic and political challenges these days, but Barcelona's city-building remains one of the best models in the world. It reminds us how smart the fundamentals are when it comes to making great cities.

1. Don't think like a city planner, architect or engineer. Think like a citizen.

For Barcelona's architects, city-building is as much about the public realm, of "civitas" or the public life well lived, as it is about buildings. With a more holistic view of disciplines, planners live less in silos, and their results show it. This might stem from the continued reverence for Ildefons Cerdà, who certainly wasn't limited by his civil engineering training. Cerdà functioned as city planner, architect, even health specialist - in other words, as a holistic city-builder. At a time when silo thinking still seeks to break down urban thinking into disciplines and specialties across North America, Cerdà’s and Barcelona's holistic approach is something we should all aspire to.

2. Architects, quit complaining about rules!
Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia boulevard, like other beautiful streets that regulate their height, street width and other pattern-makers (Paris' Avenue des Champs-Elysees), strong powerful patterns still allow for great architectural beauty and nuance.
The easiest example is Gaudi's La Pedrera, which acts as a “typical” chamfered corner building (required 45 degree oblique cuts, which marvelously make every intersection a versatile, open, breathable "plaza" of sorts) within Cerdà’s brilliant block plan - and yet there's nothing typical about Gaudi's design.

3. Make walking (and biking) irresistible.
Like most European cities, trains and transit have been mainstays in Barcelona, with long-running systems expanded whenever there's a good excuse, like the Olympics. However they aren’t the only basket for mobility eggs.
The wide avenues and boulevards of Cerda's Plan give ample room for multi-modal infrastructure. Walking has long been a priority - as illustrated by five centuries of "rambling" on La Rambla, one of the best people streets in the world. Cerda's l'Eixample (Expansion) plan made walking enjoyable almost everywhere - 50 percent of all street space is dedicated to walking space, with the other 50 percent for all other forms of 'traffic.'
Urban biking is growing fast in Barcelona, spurred on by the locals-only bikeshare system, and very simple bike-lane approaches (some separated, some not) to improve bike safety. When the city has incorporated separated bike-lanes, it’s taken from the 50 percent that's for the rest of traffic, not from the walking half.
4. Small, tight streets work great, and so do wide streets, if designed right.
Walking through the Gothic Quarter, one can't help but think of everything we see in terms of scale. The tight streets and alleys with high, enclosing building heights that, combined with the street widths, create an excellent "urban room," would be illegal almost everywhere in North America. We've scaled our cities for cars and trucks.
At the same time, the city's main streets can be very wide. Beautiful street-scaping and mature trees define "sub-areas" of the street and create a sense of scale, and the consistent building scale within and across blocks still works to enclose the "urban room." The street doesn't feel wide or have any of the usual weaknesses of wide streets.
5. Tall buildings aren't evil - but don’t put them just anywhere.
Barcelona is generally a mid-rise city. A key part of Cerdà’s plan was a consistent scale of seven to nine stories throughout the pattern. Despite this, the city has embraced strategically located towers in recent decades. My favorite example is Jean Nouvel's Torre Agbar, beautifully terminating many views across the city on the Diagonal.

Many European cities continue to debate height restrictions, with London's Shard being a recent attention-grabber. For me, Barcelona shows the important question isn't if, but where. Putting taller buildings in locations that "do no damage" to the prevailing pattern, and terminate a view or help mark our way-finding "mental map"  can add value.

The key is to pick the smart locations for height, and to demand a beautiful building and public realm interface. Don't let a starchitect or flashy design dazzle you into putting tall buildings in the wrong places.

6. Even Barcelona can learn from Barcelona
Like any city, Barcelona isn't perfect. In recent years I've worried they've forgotten many of their own lessons around pattern and people-focused urban design. Some public spaces seem designed for architectural magazines, and are empty of people. Many recent buildings seem like flashy objects in space, with unsuccessful scale and dead spaces surrounding them.
A prime example is the ironic location of the Smart City Congress itself - an essentially suburban environment (although better than average, if you grade it by a suburban standard) with a convention centre, hotel towers, a massive Ikea, and residential tower blocks. Although underground parking and wide sidewalks help make it more walkable than those uses might suggest, it's still big buildings with wide, often cold spaces in between.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Top 10 Health Benefits of Walking

Sitting is the smoking of our generation, according to a Harvard Business Review article. Walking is the answer. A mountain of research brings this fact to light. Walking is a free, easy, low-impact way to combat adverse health effects of prolonged sitting, and so many other health ills. You don’t have to train for a marathon to combat unhealthy impacts of sitting. Just walk. It’s good for the body and mind.
“Walking is the closest thing to a magic bullet for health,” says Dr. Graham Colditz of Washington University School of Medicine. Put another way by Mayo Clinic obesity expert Dr. James Levine, “You don’t have to join a gym… You just have to switch off the TV, get off the sofa and go for a walk.”

1. Lose Weight by Living in a Walkable Neighborhood
Want a quick and easy way to lose weight? Find a walkable place to live.The average resident of a walkable neighborhood weighs 2-4 kilos less than someone who lives in a sprawling neighborhood. Neighborhoods with poor walkabilityare barriers to physical activity, while research shows people walk more if living in a walkable neighborhood.
Walkability impacts public health by “…affecting the relative convenience and viability of pedestrian travel and biking for both recreational and utilitarian (trip) purposes, and thus they influence the levels of physical activity,” reads a study from Georgia Institute of Technology.
Offset obesity by walking: A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that people genetically prone to obesity can offset that tendency by walking. A brisk one-hour daily walk reduced the influence of obesity by half.
2. Walk to Combat Cancer
Women who walked 1 to 3 hours per week had risk of death from breast and uterine cancer reduced by 19%. When they walked 3 to 5 hours per week, their risks of the same cancers were reduced by 54%, according to a study by Harvard University.
Men who walk briskly for at least 3 hours a week after being diagnosed with prostate cancer were 57% less likely to see the disease progress.

3. Walk to Reduce Risk of Heart Disease
Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center writes, “An analysis of numerous studies on walking and heart disease concluded that the risk for developing heart disease decreases as the amount of walking increases.” Retired men who walk more than 1.5 miles per day had a significantly lower risk for heart disease (compared to men who walk less), according to a New England Journal of Medicine study. Walking at a moderate pace (3 to 4 miles per hour) for up to 3 hours each week (equates to 30 minutes a day) can cut women’s heart disease risk by 40%, according to a Harvard study.
4. Walk to Reduce Blood Pressure
A Korean Institute of Sport Science study proved a decrease in blood pressure in those who followed a walking exercise similar to the recommended 30 minutes per day, five times a week given by the American College of Sports Medicine.
5. Walk to Reduce Diabetes Risk
A New England Journal of Medicine study tied walking with reduced risk of diabetes. The study of more than 3,000 overweight adults found that walking 2.5 hours per week (along with a healthy diet) reduced the risk by 58% of getting diabetes. For overweight adults 60 years and older, the reduced risk was 71%.
6. Walk to Keep Arteries Unclogged
A Journal of the American College of Cardiology study found that exercise before a meal may help stem the effects of high-fat foods on blood vessel function. Walking is good for the heartand its arteries and vessels in many ways, including stemming build-up and clogging of arterial walls. Unclogged vessels and arteries keep blood circulating throughout the body, to organs and limbs.
8. Walking Combats Arthritis and Strengthens Joints
Knee arthritis sufferers were able to increase the distance walked by 18% and gained nearly 40% boost in joint function after finishing an 8-week walking study. They also experienced significantly less pain and needed less medication after walking, based on research in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
9. Enjoy a Healthy Pregnancy
Pregnancy doesn’t have to mean your health decreases. Walking just half an hour every day helps pregnant women prevent back pain, swelling, constipation and other pregnancy-related irritations and health conditions, according to research by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
10. Walk for a Healthy Brain
Walking regularly reduces brain atrophy and mental decline, resulting in a 50% reduction in risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia where thinking, memory and behavior deteriorate over time. This according to Rush University Medical Center research.
Seniors, take note: Exercise, including walking, in your 70s may stop brain shrinkage, a sign of aging linked to dementia, according to Edinburgh University research.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Unhealthy neighbourhoods play big role in obesity, diabetes epidemic

Cities' neighbourhoods have long been ranked, like Hollywood stars, according to their beauty and magnetic personalities.
But cities are now being increasingly divided into healthy and sick zones. If you live in downtown Geneva or Paris, where the tree canopy is lush and you can easily walk to an organic café or a yoga class, you belong to a privileged class not only because of the real estate values in your neighbourhood but because you're likely to have a higher life expectancy.
This is the new crisis of cities: Badly designed neighbourhoods are literally sapping people of their ability to live fully.
If, as a newly arrived immigrant, poverty has driven you to the inner or outer suburbs, where you live in a basement apartment or high above the concrete ground in a residential tower, you are far more likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes and its related consequences such as blindness and amputation. Most of Canada's growth comes from immigrants, but the troubling fact is that Hispanics, blacks and South Asians are genetically predisposed to diabetes. Because of the compounding of these forces, you and your neighbours can expect a lower life expectancy.
A poor diet, high in saturated fat and low on fruits and vegetables, causes excess weight. Once obesity sets in, especially if it develops at a young age, type 2 diabetes usually follows. A sedentary lifestyle fuels the problem. That's why some medical researchers and health offices are joining forces with urban planners to design neighbourhoods that are more conducive to activity. Healthy eating combined with increases in physical exercise - walking with the kids to school or biking to the cinema - would help to mitigate the rise in the prevalence of obesity over the last two decades. They say that we need to embrace the Danish model of urban wellness, or suffer a health disaster.
It's a cruel fate.
"Diabetes is extremely costly to manage. It places a huge burden on individuals and on the health-care system," said Gillian Booth, a lead author of the Diabetes Atlas created by St. Michael's Hospital's Centre for Research on Inner City Health and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.
The first Canadian study of its kind, published in 2007, the Atlas investigated 140 Toronto neighbourhoods over three years to examine the role of several factors - including community design, population density, access to healthy and unhealthy food - on the diabetes epidemic. Poverty and ethnicity were found to be key in the development of type 2 diabetes. The researchers also concluded that walking and transit times to recreation facilities in the city's outlying neighbourhoods were as long as 40 minutes and 20 minutes, respectively, each way. It takes only 30 minutes of walking or moderate exercise, combined with a healthy diet, to cut the risk of diabetes in half. But a walk through a bleak or potentially dangerous neighbourhood is hardly inspiring, especially if the only nearby landmark is a highway.
"Among all the people being admitted for heart attack or stroke, one-third have diabetes. Two-thirds of all amputations that are caused not from trauma occur in people with diabetes," Dr. Booth said. "Clearly, we need to start thinking about prevention."
We used to call them ugly, but now social geographers and medical practitioners label the disconnected sections of the city "obesogenic," meaning environments that promote obesity.