For those of us who live in cities (54 % according to UN), we know that being in a place with a lot of other people does not necessarily make us feel connected to others. Having stores, schools, and workplaces in our city, does not necessarily mean that we are getting outside regularly and walking or biking. There are many reasons for this: our schedules are tight, we live with underlying fears and anxieties about the people around us, and often we just don’t feel motivated to get out. I know that physical activity, getting outside, connecting to others, and feeling a sense of belonging all contribute to my mental health. But how can the physical aspects of my city, neighbourhood, or home inspire me to get out, connect to others, and/or feel a sense of belonging?
I thought I might talk to an expert about this, so I called my brother. He happens to work in city planning. We got together for coffee to talk about the things that contribute to the wellbeing of humans living in cities.
We started by discussing Rob’s Masters practicum, which happened to be about what makes a street pedestrian-friendly. Rob spoke about how the design of streets can make individuals feels comfortable and safe, or not. He spoke specifically about places people walk within the city, and how sidewalks might affect one’s sense of belonging. Rob noted that the most obvious contributor to a pedestrian’s feeling of belonging, on any given street, is the existence, or non-existence, of sidewalks. Also, the size of the sidewalk can make someone feel like this is their space, and they don’t have to rush through it. A small sidewalk next to a busy street might feel unsafe or unwelcoming to pedestrians, especially for individuals’ with mobility challenges, who may be using walkers or wheelchairs. Rob mentioned that the presence of ‘pedestrian-sized’ elements, such as lighting (not only street lights designed to illuminate the road for cars, but lanterns on the sidewalks), trees, or benches, can add to a welcoming feeling for pedestrians.
These things are important, as our current car-culture is impacting both our physical and mental health. We are isolated from other people. Many of us spend hours each day sitting at our jobs and then driving home. The impact of cars on the environment is also substantial. Car-culture decreases a sense of belonging for the individual living in the city, as we do not interact with others while driving, or engage with the physical aspects of the city. Cities designed primarily for cars are not pedestrian-friendly. It can be difficult to change the culture of the city, but Rob notes that we can make our city more pedestrian-friendly, even in small ways.
“It doesn’t have to be world class. We don’t have to re-create Paris, but we can make small affordable changes, even in our wintery city. These changes can make a big difference.”
What Makes a Street Pedestrian-Friendly?
- Slower, or minimal traffic. Traffic calming measures give pedestrians (and cyclists) a stronger sense of safety. It also reduces noise. Loud traffic does not add to ambiance for pedestrians.
- Landscaping, such as trees, bushes and benches can change the feel of a place and be inviting to pedestrians.
- Buildings with doors or windows facing the sidewalk are much more inviting than a blank wall. “People walk more quickly past blank walls.”
Signs that Pedestrians feel Safe and Welcome on any Given Street:
- There are pedestrians there. The more the better.
- The speed that people are moving. Slower moving pedestrians are a good sign.
- People engaging with one another, even if it’s just to ask for the time, shows they feel they belong in a space.
- People spending time in one particular spot. Sitting or standing around is another sign of people feeling they belong in that space.
In his thesis practicum, Rob draws pictures of streets in the downtown area and then recreates the scene adding wider sidewalks and curbs, benches, public art, greenery and lanterns to invite people to walk, sit, interact and engage with their city and others in it.
We spoke about residential neighbourhoods and what gives people a sense of belonging in their own neighbourhood. Rob spoke about landmarks or features which give people a sense of place and a sense of belonging. We talked about ‘The Bell Tower’ in the North End – a place that, up until a few years ago, was relatively unnoticed, until people from the area began meeting there on a weekly basis to support each other in a quest to reduce violence in the neighbourhood. Now “Meet Me at the Bell Tower” has become known throughout the city, has been covered by news stories, and gives a sense of pride to this neighbourhood.
I asked Rob about a term he’d used in his thesis practicum called, ‘urban triage.’ As a mental health professional, I liked the idea of ‘triaging’ an environment. Rob states:
“Urban triage is where you start by finding the area of a city which could be improved with the greatest chance of success. This gives cities and urban planners a place to start.”
I wondered if I could do that in my own neighbourhood? I could imagine finding a nice spot that might be improved with a bench or bush, a mural, or new lighting, and then rallying neighbours to work together to make it happen. In a previous life, when I worked as a community development worker, we would fundraise, call for volunteers, apply for grant money, have a contest, or advocate to city hall for help with projects like these. These are do-able projects, and could make a big impact on a neighbourhood and the sense of pride and belonging people feel in there. These types of projects also brought people together and neighbours really got to know each other.
Yards & Boulevards
We spoke about our favourite places to walk in the city. I mentioned Wolseley, and how fun it is to walk around there looking at the character homes and creative yards. Rob spoke about the concept of a soft edge where someone might plant a garden with a bench on the boulevard.
“Individuals walking by feel invited and comfortable, like they belong there. They might not be so bold as to actually sit on the bench, but it does feel inviting.”
I thought about how easy it would be to add something to my own boulevard to increase the invitational feeling on our block. My neighbours have a beautifully landscaped front yard and people often stop to look at it. I’m not the greatest gardener in the world but I could imagine a bit of whimsy.
Rob spoke about small-scale versions of ‘symbols of place,’ where a person might say,
“You know that place with the weird tree out front? That’s my place.”
– something that gives character and a means of unique identification. Again, this is about identity and belonging, not wanting to be nameless or generic. Wanting others to see us, and wanting to see ourselves in our environment.
Rob mentioned a study he was a part of with the Institute of Urban Studies several years ago, called Housing First, where they assessed people’s housing conditions. They did home assessments to determine how ‘livable’ current low-income housing was for the people living in these places. These would primarily be renters. They looked at whether there was access to nature, (that might mean a yard with a few varieties of plants, or a tree, or access to a nearby a park.) They determined that any access to natural landscape would impact individual’s wellbeing in a positive way. Another feature of private homes that impacts wellbeing is ‘a focal point’. Rob notes:
“This might be a large window with a view, or a fireplace, or it might be a character feature such as exposed brick. Anything, other than just plain drywall. “
This focal point, provides a sense of place or identity – somewhere a person could belong. Not just a box to sleep in.
I left our meeting musing about the things that I had never really consciously taken time to notice, and was inspired to pay more attention to my urban environment. I’ve been to many major cities around the world, and I’ve never really considered ours particularly beautiful or inviting. Mostly, I’m here for the people (who are amazing) but I’ve learned to love this place, and I was encouraged to know that making it feel more like home for more people is not that far out of my reach.
Click here to read Rob’s thesis:“Places for People: Designing Pedestrian-Friendly Streets in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Robert Galston’s recommended reading list:
“The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” by William H. Whyte (no relation to the person the North End neighbourhood is named after).
“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs* a curious and observant housewife who was not an academic. She wrote this book in 1961 and it has been influencing city planning ever since. She went on to write 6 more books on cities.
*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee.
You might also want to check out 50 Ways to Go for a Walk