As developers and urban planners seek to create more liveable, sustainable, human-scale communities, concepts such as the "15-minute city" or the "transit-oriented community" have quickly gained traction. Both of these concepts refer to places that enable residents to meet most of their daily needs by taking a short walk, bicycle ride or transit ride. It's a simple idea, but one that can have a surprisingly profound effect on people's quality of life — an effect I'll describe in more detail shortly.
The team at icona are continually exploring new ideas that transform communities and create places that matter, including the free movement that the 15-minute city promises. But our multidisciplinary and technology-focused approach to place-making has motivated us to focus more broadly on a community's power to not just transport but connect people — to places, to amenities, to opportunities and to each other.
While a 15-minute city might ensure that people can reach specific destinations quickly without relying on cars, a connected community offers even more ways to achieve a healthy, connected lifestyle.
Essential destinations such as the grocery store, pharmacy, gym and coffee shop are no more than a 10-minute walk or 5-minute cycle away on clean, safe, quiet paths. A short trip on a local shuttle bus brings transit hubs such as the Skytrain within a 10-minute distance, door to door. Electric charging stations ensure that green vehicles are a viable alternative. Local flexible workspaces enable people to reduce or eliminate the daily commute. As a result, reliance on cars and traffic congestion is significantly reduced, which brings even more freedom of movement and enhance the day-to-day experience for all residents.
Our sense of connection to the communities we live in feels spontaneous and organic, but in fact, the way those communities are designed, planned and developed plays a big role in creating those experiences. As urban planners and developers who are committed to creating places that matter, the icona team has developed a set of best practices aimed at ensuring the communities we create are the best examples of connected communities.
A community is made up of people with differing lifestyles, abilities and preferences. The more options we offer community residents, the more likely they are to leave their cars at home or give them up altogether in favour of alternative transit options. This can include walking, cycling, local shuttle services, buses, electric scooters and electric vehicles. By ensuring that our communities include the infrastructure that supports multimodal options — including well-lit sidewalks, groomed trails, safe bike lanes and lockers and electric vehicle charging stations — we can greatly increase the likelihood that every resident can find an option that appeals to them and fits their lifestyle.
Changing ingrained habits is hard, but we can support community residents to make good choices by making it easy and convenient for them to walk, bike or hop on a bus. Here are two examples of concrete actions that developers and urban planners can take to influence healthier behaviours and choices.
Public transit. People are far less likely to get into the habit of using public transit if they have to consult a transit schedule ahead of the trip. Ideally, the frequency of local routes will enable residents to simply walk out the door at their convenience, knowing that their bus will be along within a few minutes. But for new communities, there is often not enough density to justify a high route frequency. By proactively making bus or shuttle routes highly available before the ridership is there, community-makers can establish the early, positive associations with public transit that support the creation of a connected community.
Walking and cycling. Making sure that the community is equipped with adequate sidewalks and cycle paths that are well-maintained, well-lit, safe and thoughtfully designed is essential. Myriad other factors, such as introducing traffic calming and lower speed limits can make self-powered mobility options more attractive. Even something as seemingly unimportant as creating shorter blocks can encourage more people to get out and walk.
We can support people to make healthier, more sustainable choices by bringing a greater range of safe, convenient, multimodal transit options within reach, but to create a truly connected community, we need to think holistically — and creatively — about how community design impacts lifestyle choices. Here are some examples.
To create a truly connected community, we need to think holistically — and creatively — about how community design impacts lifestyle choices.
When we think about the benefits of designing communities in ways that facilitate more seamless connections, what comes to mind first are reduced traffic congestion and cleaner air. And those environmental benefits are clear and tangible. But a connected community generates a far wider array of positive outcomes that enhance overall physical, social, economic and mental health as well.
Reliance on cars for transportation has been proven to cause significant physical harm, including inactivity, obesity and cardio-respiratory disease. Conversely, when a community supports transit alternatives, its residents get healthier. People walk more and cycle more. Even if they use shuttles and buses to get around, they walk to the pick-up point and continue walking when they reach their destination. And if the community includes trails and pathways into nature, the health benefits are even greater.
Urban sprawl has had a devastating effect on the social fabric of the communities people live. When people are forced to rely on cars to get around, it creates isolation. When people use sidewalks, bike lanes, trails and public transit to get around in their community, the opportunities to socialize and interact with neighbours, friends and business owners multiply. People strike up conversations with strangers. They get to know one another. And they become more actively involved and invested in the community they call home.
Driving requires focus and can be a source of stress for many people, especially when traffic conditions are unfavourable. When people can start and end the workday with an energizing walk or bike trip, or when they can use the time to relax and unwind on public transit (by reading, listening to music or a podcast, or just letting their minds roam free), it has a positive impact on their stress levels.
Business owners have often been resistant to the idea of replacing parking spaces in commercial areas with bike paths or pedestrianized streets because they believe that it will negatively impact sales and profitability. In fact, research shows that when people get out of their cars, it brings more business to local retailers. People who arrive by bike or on foot interact more and spend more with local businesses than those who arrive by car, and when car traffic is minimized in commercial hubs, they become more pleasant places to visit and linger in.
Encouraging multimodal transit options also improves taxpayers' overall economic health by mitigating the health costs of inactivity.
Connected communities are transforming the way we live, and developers and planners have a vital role to play in this transformation. Becoming healthier, happier and more connected isn't solely up to the choices we make as individuals. The way our communities are created — not just in terms of transit options, but also infrastructure and home and commercial design — can ensure that we live our lives in ways that benefit ourselves, our neighbours and our planet.