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


In a conversation at Clínica Esperanza’s waiting room, a Spanish-speaking neighbor said walking was not part of his daily routine. His job as a driver kept him car-bound all day. During his time off and on weekends, he didn’t feel like walking for leisure or transportation, mainly because he had no need to do so in a neighborhood so drivable. His only daily walking routine was from his home to his driveway and back.

Clínica Esperanza is a free clinic providing medical care to uninsured adults in the neighborhood of Olneyville in Providence, Rhode Island. It is also one of the local stakeholders involved in RISD’s Public Space and Public Health Initiative (PSPH).(a)This project is designed to work closely with the Olneyville community to explore the potential of design as a catalyst for enhanced public spaces, improved public health, and renewed social cohesion. The initial focus of PSPH is walking, a powerful tool to improve the physical and mental health of individuals while providing additional social, economic, and environmental benefits for communities.

The Power Of Walking

Walking is consistently the most popular form of physical activity in the United States.1 It is a basic human activity that comes at no cost, requires no special skills or customized equipment, and has a low risk of injury. The positive health impact of regular walking has been well documented over the years.(b) It reduces the risk and severity of a wide range of non-communicable diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and chronic lung disease. It has also been shown to reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and increase cognitive performance among students and seniors.2

While not as robust as the literature on walking and health, there is a small but growing body of academic research demonstrating the social and economic benefits of walking.3 These include improved economic conditions in neighborhoods;4 higher retail sales for local businesses;4 increased levels of political, neighborhood, and social engagement amongst community members;5 and a greater “sense of community” among local residents.6

Promoting Walkable Urban Landscapes

The expanding body of research on the benefits of walking has sparked a growing recognition of the transformative potential of urban walking and a focus on creating more walkable cities. The U.S. Surgeon General has supported campaigns encouraging Americans to add walking to their daily routine. Urban planners have developed systems to measure and rank the walkability of cities and neigborhoods.7 While rankings vary depending on the methodology used, relatively dense cities with strong public transportation networks – like New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago – often top the lists.

One of the most well-known metrics, created by the organization Walk Score, rates Providence as very walkable and ranks Olneyville as the 11th most walkable neighborhood in the city (out of the 24 neighborhoods ranked).(c) However, research shows that while lower-income neighborhoods may rank as walkable based on traditional measures, such as population density and access to public transportation, health and physical activity levels among residents in these areas are often lower than in similarly walkable high-income areas.(d) While many lower-income neighborhoods have key physical elements needed to make them walkable, crime issues and a lack of aesthetically pleasing streets and buildings prevent people in these neighborhoods from actually walking as part of their daily routine.8

Anecdotal evidence from the PSPH initiative in Olneyville supports these concerns. According to Providence Councilwoman Sabina Matos, the neighborhood suffers from under-utilized public parks, narrow and decaying sidewalks, and a lack of centrally located public spaces designed for community interaction. In recent years, shrinking municipal budgets have severely limited the ability of local agencies to maintain and manage parks and other urban public spaces, repair broken sidewalks, and install well-designed street furniture and amenities.(e) These infrastructure problems are exacerbated by a consumer society enamored of digital technologies and a culture that favors static, device-centric interaction over active, physical movement.

Understanding The Landscape Of A Neighborhood

With these challenges in mind, the PSPH Initiative focused on how design could foster a stronger culture of everyday physical movement in Olneyville among individuals of all ages. In collaboration with community members, we proposed and implemented a number of small projects focused on public parks and neighborhood streets.

Our first fieldwork research project was an open-space inventory. PSPH researchers conducted a series of walks around Olneyville to map public space resources and record direct observations of the ways community members were using the parks, streets, commercial areas, and the river corridor. This inventory generated a number of experiential maps that became the foundation for subsequent projects and allowed our team to tap into the resources of local stakeholders such as the Olneyville Housing Corporation, a neighborhood champion with deep local knowledge.

While our inventory uncovered a number of challenges, it also gave us valuable insight into potential strengths. It showed that community and family food gardens are abundant and well maintained in Olneyville. It also revealed the importance of the stoop in front of local houses and the propensity of neighbors to participate in street life from their porches, a finding that speaks to the neighborhood culture of Olneyville.

Participatory mapping, a process by which community members help create maps from their personal experiences, became a toolbox of choice that helped our team establish a deeper relationship with the Olneyville community. During Locally Made: One Room – a weeklong program at the RISD Museum exploring participatory collaborations between local artists, designers, performers, innovators, and the larger community – we invited the public to draw their preferred Olneyville walking routes on a large floor map.


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.


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