Decoding Design

Fighting obesity with urban planning

Posting in Architecture

This week Los Angeles County releases a design manual focused on remodeling city streets in ways that encourage the health of urban residents.

American obesity, while maybe not breaking news, continues to be a growing epidemic. Governments of all levels are trying to do their part to encourage a healthy, realistic lifestyle for their citizens. The First Lady, Michelle Obama, founded an initiative to get kids moving, New York City prohibited obesity-linked trans-fats, and one California lawmaker proposed to tax junk food.

In Los Angeles County, California, almost one quarter of the population is obese.  The public health department has taken various actions emulating those previously described, but the city wanted to take it further. The government is getting creative, looking beyond the accepted methods to reduce and prevent obesity.

This week, the L.A. County Department of Public Health released the "Model Design Manual for Living Streets," essentially a contribution to the fight against obesity from an urban planning perspective. The aim is to make the streets more active and efficient, and as a result, healthier.

This effort was funded by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in collaboration with the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, and it focuses not just on pedestrians. According to the site's informative description, the manual's aim is to achieve "balance."

It is important, as most cities have to work with a street system already in place, that street design "accommodates cars while ensuring that pedestrians, cyclists and transit users can travel safely and comfortably."

Beauty and environmental sustainability are also important features of a balanced streetscape.

The idea that the design of a street can affect the fitness and physical health of city-dwellers comes from the notion that different city and street landscapes facilitate different types of human use.

"For example," reported Nate Berg, for Atlantic Cities, "a street designed with no sidewalks, no crosswalks, and six lanes of cars rushing by at 60 mph will discourage pedestrians

The manual brought together the best current practices that both urban planners and city officials can use as a guide to do their part in promoting physical activity as a means to fight obesity. Contributors came from many fields, including transportation engineering, landscape architecture and public health.

Though originally crafted for cities within the borders of L.A. County,  the scope of the manual was widened for more diverse application. The manual offers advice on how to make a restored area into profitable venture, and even suggests ways to improve streets in an affordable way, acknowledging how expensive construction can be.

It is clear that sharing ideas with anyone that was interested, whether with designers or government officials, is an important part of the project. To make this easier, downloading is free.

The application of the principles stated in the manual, of course, remains to be seen. For now, the idea of making streets activity-friendly is a step in the right direction.

[Via Atlantic Cities]
Photo: William Carter

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure