How To Design Healthier Cities

With all the concern about America’s rising levels of obesity and physical inactivity, it’s easy to forget that there are some very straightforward solutions we can rely on to promote better health. One of the simplest is also one of the most fundamental of all human physical activities: walking.

Walking is a powerful tool for promoting physical health, along with mental well-being, social connectivity, and community cohesion. The challenge lies in cultivating urban landscapes and public spaces that encourage walking (and, for people with disabilities, wheelchair use and other forms of individual mobility). In 2010, just 62% of the U.S. population reported walking for more than 10 minutes at any time in the previous week.1

How can we reshape our cities so that more people incorporate walking into their daily lives? An innovative initiative out of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) tried to tackle this question by using design to make one local neighborhood more walkable.

One Communitys Challenge


These participatory maps reveal aspects of the neighborhood well known to locals but not as evident to researchers and designers. For example, we learned from Olneyville residents that certain streets are safer, less crowded with car traffic, or simply more pleasant than others. This information is invaluable for designing future projects and is unlikely to have been available in ways other than participatory mapping.

In parallel with these mapping efforts, our research team established numerous links with city officials, particularly Councilwoman Matos, and fellow researchers at Brown University whose work connected to ours. We brainstormed with local organizations, held community meetings, and engaged in conversation with supportive elected officials. Investing in relationships and the development of human capital helped create a broader common front that is now well positioned to spur future action in support of active public spaces and urban walking.

Designing A More Walkable Olneyville

A more walkable Olneyville is possible. Our research provides the basis for promoting the practice of walking as a successful tool to improve public health and community interaction. A strategy of implementing multiple, small, dynamic interventions is a solid point of departure toward long-term, sustained change. Here are some ideas for Olneyville’s future that came out of our research:

  • Food gardens should evolve from individual and sporadic projects into a connected network. The future of community food production is as infrastructure designed to foster interaction, better nutrition, and physical exercise in the neighborhood.
  • Local parks need to be reactivated creatively. Beyond the issue of high maintenance expenses and shrinking public budgets, there is a need to find creative ways to recuperate the everyday value of public parks. Temporary programming and a higher degree of community decision-making are affordable ways to slowly bring neighborhood parks back to the center of community life.
  • Public space should be a hub for communication. Well-designed signage, wayfinding systems, or temporary art installations are communication mechanisms with the ability to transform public spaces and foster physical activity. Our team worked with the Olneyville Public Library on a series of design workshops with local children to produce creative signs for the public spaces and streets in their neighborhood.
  • New small businesses can improve walkability and convenience for local residents. Working with neighbors, local authorities, and community organizations to develop a survey of existing retail businesses and a plan for targeting new retail businesses should result in better and more frequent pedestrian flows in the neighborhood.

Lessons For Community Design

Having engaged with the community of Olneyville at different levels, we found that design is a greatly unexplored, underutilized tool to improve urban public space and thereby promote public health. We discovered that small interventions – direct, inexpensive, community-driven projects that have clear motivations and tangible results – are a powerful means to affect change and to define the policies and transformations of the built environment that will improve how people interact with their neighborhoods. An added benefit of this project was the establishment of new connections between community stakeholders, local government, and public health and design experts, a mix that is more likely to be successful in the long run than stand-alone initiatives by any one group.

As a fundamental form of human mobility, walking allows us to explore cities in a unique way and, in doing so, helps us participate in ongoing dialogues with our neighborhoods and their public spaces. Our project in Olneyville demonstrated that, if made an everyday practice, urban walking and other forms of individual mobility are an excellent tool for shaping the civic life of our cities, the character of our neighborhoods, and the quality of our health. Design – understood as a means for configuring public space and the local environment to improve people’s lives – must be a critical part of efforts to promote walking.

Enrique Martínez works at the intersection of systems innovation, design, and social progress. He is a Senior Critic at the Rhode Island School of Design and an international consultant on new processes for education, health, healthcare, and well-being and food systems.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012) Vital Signs: Walking Among Adults –United States, 2005 and 2010,Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 61(31): 595-601.
  2. C3 Collaborating for Health (2012) The benefits of regular walking for health, wellbeing and the environment.
  3. A good review of the economic benefits can be found in Todd Alexander Litman (2011) Economic Value of Walkability, Victoria, British Columbia: Victoria Transport Policy Institute.
  4. Christopher B. Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo (2012) Walk this Way: The Economic Promise of Walkable Places in Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.
  5. Kevin M. Leyden (2003) “Social Capital and the Built Environment: The Importance of Walkable Neighborhoods,”American Journal of Public Health, 93(9): 1546-1551.
  6. Lisa Wood, Lawrence D. Frank, and Billie Giles-Corti (2010) “Sense of community and its relationship with walking and neighborhood design,” Social Science & Medicine, 70(9): 1381-1390.
  7. For a review of walkability indices, see: Ria Hutabarat Loa (2009) “Walkability: What Is It?” Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability, 2(2): 145-166. See also: Lawrence D. Frank, James F. Sallis, Brian E. Saelens, Lauren Leary, Kelli Cain, Terry L. Conway, and Paul M. Hess (2010) “The Development of a Walkability Index: Application To the Neighborhood Quality of Life Study,” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(13): 924-933.
  8. K.M. Neckerman, G.S. Lovasi, S. Davies, M. Purciel, J. Quinn, E. Feder, N. Raghunath, B. Wasserman and A. Rundle (2009) “Disparities in urban neighborhood conditions: evidence from GIS measures and field observation in New York City,” Journal of Public Health Policy, 30 (Supplement 1): S264-285.


This Vinegar Rinse Is Great For Dogs With Skin Conditions