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We can build healthier streets by prioritizing the human experience

December 08, 2021

By James Laing

Connecting people is fundamental in communities. What does the health of streets have to do with that?

Roadways play a vital role in any community. They allow people to get to appointments and create a space where people can walk, spend time, and engage with each other. Now, imagine streets designed with paedestrians in mind.

Several years ago, public health specialist Lucy Saunders developed the Healthy Streets® Approach, the adopted framework for the Mayor of London’s Transport Strategy. As part of the approach, the Healthy Streets Design Check allows planners, designers, and engineers to make basic assessments of their streets against 10 healthy streets indicators. They balance social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

One of the main goals of using this tool is to improve the human experience on the street. The tool measures how accessible, safe, relaxing, and welcoming streets are for people to walk, cycle, and spend time in. By assessing our streets through this lens, we can see what is needed to build more robust streets that focus on health, experience, and wellness. It encourages planners and designers to look through a human perspective, not only considering journey time and traffic flow but also how people want to move around.

By assessing our streets through the lens of the human experience, we can see what is needed to build more robust streets that prioritize health, experience, and wellness.

Importantly, the approach doesn't mean that car journeys would necessarily take longer, but rather to get people more active. We’re not getting rid of cars—we’re making streets more equitable. It gives people a legitimate choice. It frees up space for people who don’t want to drive. Interestingly, if you look at how shopping centers are configured, you’ll notice designers usually include ample space for shoppers to sit and rest between shops. Our streets should be the same, with more people bustling through and interacting.

From London to Australia

After successfully implementing the tool in London and seeing the positive impacts, Lucy travelled to Australia to introduce the concept.

Naturally, there were concerns around it not being fit for our Australian and New Zealand climate, which is vastly different from the United Kingdom. However, she saw the potential and noticed that all the elements were transferable and would work in an Australasian climate. It was clear, however, that the tool needed to be adapted. Lucy set the wheels in motion to develop the Healthy Streets for Australia Design Check tool. 

The Healthy Streets Approach measures how accessible, safe, relaxing, and welcoming streets are for people to walk, cycle, and spend time in.

Earlier this year, we worked with Lucy to adapt and develop the tool to measure the performance of Australian streets. The main difference between the UK and Australian tools is the metric in weight calculations used to evaluate each of the 10 focus areas. Together we worked to optimize the tool by refining the appropriate weight for each category.

For example, there has been an alarming increase of skin cancer among Australians in recent years. Therefore, shade and shelter hold a considerable bearing for our climate. In London’s central business district, pollution holds higher weight than shade and shelter. Other nuances included our traffic regulations and speeds. The team consulted engineers, policymakers, and public health specialists for their input. We also tested it in local councils.

We’re not getting rid of cars—we’re making streets more equitable. It gives people a legitimate choice.

Breaking down barriers

We want our engineers and designers to use this tool in alignment with available resources, the scope of the brief, and physical constraints that could benefit from this analysis.

For example, it might be necessary to use a slip lane in a design, but it makes crossing the street difficult for walkers. Are there other options available that might work instead of a slip lane? Does that fall within the project’s budget and time constraints? The Healthy Streets Design Check will highlight the issue and suggest options to improve the situation. The team can then seek solutions for making the street accessible for pedestrians to cross and weigh up whether an alternative solution would be necessary.

In addition to our clients, we have been speaking to local councils and industry contacts to promote awareness of the tool. We’re explaining how it can help everyone make different planning and design choices that primarily consider the way people feel when on the street.

By addressing the health of our streets, we’re transforming infrastructure with the hopes of improving the overall health of our communities, prioritizing alternative modes of transport, and fostering connection.

  • James Laing

    James is a transport engineer working with our team in Melbourne. With an aim to create inclusive neighbourhoods, his focus includes road and street design, intersection and roundabout improvements, bus priority, and road safety.

    Contact James
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