Renovating Cities – one block at a time

Just like buildings, cities need a good makeover once in a while. And the reasons are pretty much the same for both. Time has battered their infrastructure, which has either reached or surpassed its life expectancy. Also, during this life-cycle new systems have emerged that do the job better and, sometimes, at lower cost;   

These two drivers, wear and tear and the new, efficient systems would be sufficient reasons to start the renewal phase. But there is an even more compelling reason – cultural change – and, with it, our own expectations and aspirations. Cultural change is not simply about shifting music styles and dress codes. It is predominantly about the way we do practically everything in the city. The way we shop, communicate, become informed, do business, make friends, meet mates, entertain and educate ourselves, and take care of children.  In the last sixty years cultural change that covers these activities has been momentous and it demands that the city accommodate it.

Take the typical downtown bock and its surrounding four streets, for example. It used to have buildings arrayed in sequence, soldier like, separating the private domain from the public realm; private life behind the perimeter “wall”, public life on the street side. That’s the model of the past – when streets were the spaces where people strolled, socialized, sold and bought wares and struck business deals. The same block is now a walled island surrounded by a moat of cars; the public realm has mutated to a domain, where streaming, belching by cars, buses and trucks  overwhelm the senses and induce stress; an unpleasant experience that calls for  renewal. This unwelcomed condition results mostly from our enjoyment of convenience; door to door commuting or errand running in the comfort, speed, flexibility and privacy of a car; a favourite cultural change.

The city block can and has responded to this new urban cultural condition by reclaiming one of the surrounding streets, or creating “streets” inside the block or both. In some cases, an inside or outside “square” is also part of the response, completing the gamut of the public realm functions that the contemporary street can no longer sustain. In other instances, the traditional hard corner of the building recedes to become a street-side court, an added bonus for pedestrians.

This set of responses sync with our new-found quest for quiet and concentration, hopefully in the presence of greenery, where conversation can extend beyond a hurried yelling of codified phrases and OKs.  Tranquility and green are in gross undersupply in most city centres.

Examples of these approaches to renewing the block and street are increasing. Typically, residential, office or hotel towers jut up from a common base of lower buildings that include longitudinal or transverse “streets” or both. Usually, the structures occupy most of the block but no longer opaque to through movement; people can traverse it in one or both directions, peacefully, safely at their own pace. This block permeability lessens the need for a four-side car access to it; three or even only two-side access would suffice; a fact that opens up the possibility for reclaiming at least one street for pedestrians, a double gain.

A reclaimed street becomes a stage
A reclaimed street becomes a stage















Land economics demand maximization of the building footprint. An outdoor space within the bounds of site requires creative thinking and a City willing to make bold decisions for its citizens’ benefit. An uncommon example shows that an imaginative deal was necessary in order to create a most cherished outdoor space in the heart of a city. To turn part of the site to an open, green space, the developer was given two road lanes, one at each end of the block, for access and egress from the underground parking. Being on a hill slope, this 200’ by 125’ open space provided a natural setting for stepped, amphitheatric seating. Traffic suffered little from the change, access to parking was made non-disruptive and the citizens got an unprecedented gift. Imagine the attraction of a downtown where many of its blocks are treated in a similar way; a delight for the residents and an irresistible lure for visitors. The recipe is simple: make city blocks permeable to people and selected streets impermeable to cars.

Modern-day Paris owes much of its functionality and charm to a powerful bureaucrat – Baron Haussmann – who renovated the city in the 1860s by slicing avenues, grand boulevards, squares and parks through the old, rundown, labyrinthine city fabric; a task contemporary municipalities would not even dare contemplate.

In today’s cities renewal can happen in less ambitious and disruptive ways, one or two blocks and streets at a time. When driven by the new cultural realities, such renewal can gradually transform dull urban spaces into charming places.

A Fused Grid Milestone: Red Deer, AB planning guidelines


has been reached in the adoption of the Fused Grid model – embedding its principles in a municipal standards book.


While the fused grid is being vigorously debated in planning and academic circles, as any new idea normally would, an obstacle to its implementation by pragmatic developers remained: municipal policies set on a whimsical view of what constitutes a “good neighbourhood plan”.

Figure 1: A small park serves also as a connector between two streets
Figure 1: A small park serves also as a connector between two streets

A key criterion of merit, that plans are judged by, is connectivity, which means how directly and quickly people can reach their destinations, particularly close-by destinations such as a bus or light-rail stop, a convenience store, a playground or a grade school.

Measuring connectivity can be tricky, and often not required. It can also be unfair to pedestrians. The simplest method counts the number of intersections per unit area. This usually means normal street intersections – streets that are used by cars and pedestrians.

But pedestrians would rather choose other, more direct and safer routes to get to places if they are available: paths, parks, lanes and, in urban environments, side lanes, parking lots, interior “streets”, plus-15 networks or below grade connectors. Counting intersections ignores all these other options, some of which are more pleasant than an often congested, noisy, risky and noxious street environment. 

Figure 2: Three grid-like plans with indreasing number of intersections

Apart from neglecting other options, counting intersections brings in a baggage of associations that slant the judgement of a plan. Because intersections are generally orthogonal, and because they occur most frequently in grid-like plans of older cities, the automatic, but untrue, inference is that a grid would be a better plan because it results in having many intersections. Consequently, non-grid plans are prejudged as unsuitable for good connectivity.

As it happens, more intersections do not necessarily guarantee good connectivity. For example, Figure 2 shows three grid-like plans, each with a higher count of intersections. Plan C with the highest number makes it almost impossible to find a convenient way in the north-south direction.  Where they happen is far more important than their number.

Rather than starting with a a vague notion of the “good plan” or by counting intersections that neglect certain options of movement, why not keep in sight the objective – directness and ease of reaching a destination – and measure the performance of a given plan. 

That is exactly what the Red Deer Community Planning Guidelines and Standards   book does. It says under interconnectivity: Where a dead end street, P-loop crescent or a curvilinear collector roadway increases the distance of indirect travel for alternative transportation modes the neighbourhood design must provide a short cut for these travel modes via park linkages or walkways. A lane is not an acceptable short cut for this purpose.”

Figure 3: A park that functions as a connector displacing a previous street

And it clarifies in footnotes what is meant by each alternative approach to laying out a neighbourhood as, in the case of the fused grid: “Fused Grid Street Pattern: Within a modified grid of expressways and arterial roadways, on the quarter section level this pattern consists of a modified grid of collector roadways and green spaces to connect cul-de-sac ends, thereby improving local level connectivity for non-motorized travel. This helps reduce automobile use for local destinations and improves community livability.”    

In this light figure 4, a Fused Grid neighbourhood pattern illustration, would perfectly match the intentions of the guidelines.  

 Other plans by developers also move in the same direction and accomplish the goal of connectivity as implied in the guidelines – via paths and parks

This innovative code goes beyond stereotypes and introduces performance, not configuration, as the prime criterion for a well-connected neighbourhood.

A sensible lead to follow. 

Choosing a grid, or not

In an earlier article we discussed Portland’s grid flaws, prominent among which was inefficiency of land use.

We looked at Portland’s 200’ by 200’ block in the context of other layout options and, when we compared it on a number of criteria, it did not fare well. New data* on other American city grids, that emerged since, which are analysed here, sheds more light on this assessment and also open an opportunity for refined versions.

We argued earlier that if the merits of the specific Portland grid plan were self-evident to planers or developers, its use would have been expanded in the city beyond the original plating of 1846 and imitated by other cities, neither of which has been the case.

For this analysis, we used twenty city grids that range from a mere 150 by 150 feet, just over one half acre, to the ten acres of the largest American grid of Salt Lake City (660 by 660 feet). These gridiron layouts also span a range of street right-of-ways (ROW) from 30 feet to 120 feet.  The present analysis focuses exclusively on comparing land use efficiency among the twenty grids. It consequently raises the inevitable question as to which would be a suitable candidate for a contemporary “town”, “Planned Unit” or a suburban subdivision, if any at all.

Figure 1: Chart showing the influence of the right-of-way width on developable land.

We did two types of calculations: a) we measured the land use efficiency of each one in the set by calculating the ratio of buildable (or saleable) land to the total land that includes the right-of-ways (ROW) for streets, as platted and b) we did the same calculation by adopting a constant ROW for all in order to see the effect of the grid frequency (street frequency or street density).

Chart one finds Portland as the third least efficient of 20 urban grids with a buildable land use ratio of 59% and an implied 41% of land dedicated to ROWs. This finding confirms the earlier assessment. The trend lines in the chart reveal the inverse relationship of ROW width to the efficiency of land use, as might be expected. What emerges as more instructive however, is the amount of difference between a low performing grid (e.g. Houston) and a high one (e.g. Charlottesville). From the 57% of the former to the 75% of the latter there is an approximate 30% jump in land use efficiency. Such difference would impress any urban planner and would be decidedly a priority for a developer. Each for a different reason is keen in optimizing the yield of land put to urban use: sustainability for the former and economic viability for the latter. Interestingly, the Houston city block is 1.3 times larger than Charlottesville’s, yet less efficient; a counterintuitive fact that lead us to look at the influence of block size.


Figure 2: A chart showing the correlation of grid block size and land use efficiency

Chart two demonstrates the impact of block size after removing the variability among ROWs and adopting a uniform 60’ width for all cities. Portland now appears as the second least efficient grid in the set, confirming again earlier assessments.  The difference in efficiency between it (59%) and Denver’s (71%) is about 20%, not an insignificant gain in saleable land and reduction in infrastructure costs.  (The exceptional efficiency of Salt Lake City is only apparent as we shall see later.) Instructively, Charlottesville migrated from the most efficient in chart one to the third least efficient (below Houston) in chart two, due to the adjustment of its ROW. This chart reveals a strong correlation between block size and land use efficiency; the smaller the block the lower the efficiency of the grid. Looking at both charts simultaneously, the correlations among all three variables become clearer.

Based on this analysis, we can now consider an optimal, simple, open grid; or perhaps not. There may well be other considerations that would suggest abandoning the homogenous, repetitive grid altogether in favour of another type of layout. Endurance, for example: If replication is any indication of merit, the record does not bode well for the simple grids of the set (as can be seen in Google Earth images): Few of the examples in this set show a continuations beyond the original mile square plan; the majority begin to grow in size, change proportions and even geometry. And as for new towns or subdivisions using them as stencils, the current record is empty. In addition to low survival rate, there are also persistent old and new criticisms.

Key planning figures either through theoretical works or by virtue of built projects have denigrated the simple grid and, in some cases, even orthogonal and rectilinear layouts.

Olmstead in the 1800s abandoned orthogonal planning and introduced curvilinear streets that were to become the model for innumerable subdivisions. Camillo Sitte portrays the grid as unimaginative and unworthy of consideration for new towns. Raymond Unwin in his writings and works rejects the simple, open grid, succeeds in ushering the cul-de-sac through the British parliament and lays out plans free of the rigidity and repetitiveness of the simple grid. Serge Salat tells us that “Unwin joins Sitte in recommending a great variety of street widths, which would enhance the specific character of each street. In the design of districts, the interior streets should not be too wide.  Wide streets planted with trees should be reserved to the outer boulevards where they offer the threefold advantage of serving as promenades, ensuring traffic between districts and delimiting the districts”. In other words uniformity of street width diminishes character and inhibits delineation. In the same vein, Lewis Mumford writes a scathing critique of its use in town planning adding that “..The new gridiron plans were spectacular in their inefficiency and waste”. Clarence Stein creates a model that follows in the footsteps of Unwin dismissing the grid as entirely unsuitable for our times. Recent pioneering projects such as Village Homes, Davis ,CA; Seaside, FL; Kentlands,  Gaithersburg, Maryland;  and Laguna West, Sacramento, CA use layouts that abandon the simple gridiron pattern.

Figure 3. A sampling of 3 simple grids and their corresponding percentage of land used for ROWs.

From the very recent perspective of seeing cities as organisms that obey fractal laws (seen in the works of Alexander, Salingaros, Mehaffy, Mashall and Salat), more fundamental weaknesses of the uniform grid emerged. For example we read that: “Making a line straight, or regularizing a street, as 19th century urbanism has often done, eliminated intermediary scales and hence the possibility of geometric interaction and coupling of smaller scales. In other words it killed life. For thousands of years, historical cities avoided straight lines, creating multiply connected rich structures by way of slight discontinuities in relation to straight lines.”(Salat)

The same author infers that the intent that drove the creation of the simple grid may not have been entirely benevolent: “It is only when an absolute power absolutely controls the ownership and use of the ground that the city can conform to a perfectly geometric form, as was the case in the ancient Chinese capitals or the cities of colonial occupation in North and South America”

In the last 20 years, researchers confirmed the heightened risk of collisions that grid layouts engender and the negative role its unfiltered permeability plays in maintaining security and sociability in a neighbourhood.  Also, from a sustainability perspective, the grid plan has been found deficient because of its potential high ratio of paved surfaces; its land waste; its disruption of natural land features and its low operating traffic speeds.

In spite of this evidence against the simple grid and the complete absence of new applications of it, we may still wonder if a simple grid can be chosen on the basis of two known grounds: its legibility and the speed at which it can be surveyed. All simple grids in the set share these attributes irrespective of their size.

Figure 4: The turning radius of a team of four oxen pulling a four-wheel cart determined the width of the streets in Salt Lake City. (Image source: Wikipedia)

Knowing the relative impact of the variables we examined, the choice among grids becomes easier but, heeding the criticisms, also irrelevant. However, an opportunity opens up to manipulate them by selecting desirable elements from each; no need to copy uncritically. For example, the highly unusual, 120-foot ROW of Salt Lake City’s streets (based on the long-outdated need for a team of four oxen pulling a cart to turn around within the street) would be unjustifiably wasteful and unpleasant if used for residential streets, where traffic is low and buildings small. Similarly, its 660 by 660 (10 acre) block size (based on homesteading family units, mostly extinct now) cannot be subdivided efficiently for current two-income-earner family houses. These historic changes in socio-economic structures are in fact reflected on the ground; many of Salt Lake City’s original blocks have been divided in half by a mid-block road. Consequently, its exceptional theoretical efficiency on the chart evaporates in practice and renders the block as found unusable. Clearly, choices should be made with an eye to current socio-cultural conditions.

 Modifying the ROW width can definitely lead to substantial efficiencies, as we saw. Charlottesville shows the way with the narrowest streets in the set (30’ and 40’) and highest land use efficiency (chart 1). But we need not copy Charlottesville. We know many Greek, Roman, medieval and Arab streets to be much narrower, starting at 6 feet and averaging around 15 feet wide. All these streets functioned adequately for pedestrian movement and still do in surviving city centres that date back to original layouts. But, as with the block sizes, current trade, work and transportation modes bear little resemblance to those when these streets were conceived and used; direct copying may not work.

Figure 5: A 6-foot (left) and 12-foot wide streets (right), millennia old, worked well for the foot-and-hoof traffic of their time.

It is plausible that earlier street dimensions might find an application in contemporary networks: Salt Lake City’s 120 width, for example, as a divided boulevard with six lanes of traffic and a 30-foot linear park for pedestrian movement on either side while a 15’-wide Roman street, as a pedestrian-only, landscaped route connecting wider residential streets that are designed for car access. In this vein, efficiency can be matched with purpose.

Figure 6: Savannah’s composite, 13-acre cellular grid, at 55%, and a 40-acre, contemporary cellular grid at 74% land use efficiency. (Plans at same scale)

Breaking the convenient, but unnecessary, uniformity of the 18th and 19th Century American grids would be a first step in recovering the land efficiency mandated by current ecological and economic imperatives. Pointing in that direction, Savannah’s composite, cellular grid includes variable size streets and blocks for private, civic and religious functions. A second step would be to include block sizes that can accommodate comfortably prevalent building types and sizes unknown in the 1800s, again defying block uniformity. A third step would be to adapt its streets for the now universal motorized mobility, of cars, buses, trucks, trams and motorcycles, that is radically different from when oxen, equine and legs shared the transport of goods and people.

In summary, examining the simple grids in this set serves as an introduction to optimizing land use, people circulation and the movement of goods. The resulting challenge is to use these insights to develop patterns that accommodate contemporary urban land economics, transportation, environmental priorities and citizen aspirations as these patterns may have done in their time.

Fanis Grammenos, Director
Urban Pattern Associates

*Credit goes to Daniel Nairn ( for the list of American grids with dimensions.

This article was first published in


The rise of women’s role in society: impacts on housing and communities

 The  rise of women’s role in society: impacts on housing and communities

Author: Luis Rodriguez

The rise of women’s role in society will result in significant impacts on housing and communities across Canada, not too far into the future. With their rapidly rising economic power and highly heterogeneous nature, lifestyles and housing needs and preferences, women will not only be influencing future housing demand, but also defining the types of communities and housing in which they will want to live in, says planning consultant Luis Rodriguez 


In the coming years, a number of emerging demographic and socio-economic trends will shape our housing and communities —neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities. These trends indicate that families are getting smaller and the structure of the Canadian family is changing; the numbers of immigrants and visible minorities are growing; life expectancy for Canadians is increasing; the bridges between generations are expanding; young adults are tending to remain in, or return to, their parental home depending primarily on the state of the economy; more Canadians are living alone than ever before; the Canadian population is aging rapidly; real household incomes and retirement trends are changing; urban dynamics are shifting; and women’s role in society is on the rise. There is no doubt that each of these trends will accelerate rapidly in the coming years and that they will start having significant impacts on housing and communities not too far into the future.     

This article examines the rise of women’s role in society and its potential impacts both on housing and communities. It shows that women have significant impacts on the housing markets in all major cities across Canada —and on the way communities are planned and designed—  and that these impacts will only be increasingly stronger as we move into the future. The article also suggests that now is the time for community policy makers, planners, designers, developers, and the housing industry in general, to start tapping into women’s unique housing and community needs and preferences.

 When did it all start and what is happening?

 In the early part of the 20th century, the primary role of most adult women was to care for their family and home. By comparison, men more often worked outside the home for pay and assumed the role of the household head.[1] As an example, in 1911, only 7.8% of the household heads were women.1, [2]

 However, and particularly over the past sixty years, Canadian women have progressively become more important in society and —through this path— have turned the idea of taking leadership in the social, economic, and political fronts into an increasingly balanced responsibility between men and women.

 In fact, the Canadian women of the 21st century are more highly educated, more numerous and important in the labour force, more involved and successful as business entrepreneurs and business leaders, more independent and powerful in decisions regarding their housing and their home finances, more influential in politics and, in general, more economically powerful in society. For instance, in 2006, women were the primary household maintainers2 in 38% of the total (owners +renters) private households in Canada;[3] and in 2010, women in dual-earner couples born from 1981 to 1990 did 47% of couples’ total paid work and 53% of couples’ housework.[4]   

 Women’s impacts on housing — one generation at a time

There is indication that women have significant impacts on the housing markets in all major cities across Canada. A 2007 Royale LePage survey lends credence to the trend, illustrating, for example, that women drove a large portion of the activity in the condominium market in Halifax; home buying among women increased significantly in Montreal; and first-time women homebuyers represented the most active purchasing group in Vancouver.[5]  It is also very apparent that women’s impact on housing and communities will only be increasingly stronger as we move into the future.  Let us take a brief look at six of the seven generations of Canadian women born over the past 100 years (Table 1) to see what might happen. The seventh generation  —the Millennium Generation— will not be included in these discussions because the girls of this generation, who will be only between 0 and 15 years old by the end of 2011, are too young to qualify as primary household maintainers. 


 Table 1 —Source: Statistics Canada. 2007. “Portrait of the Canadian Population in 2006, by Age and Sex, 2006 Census. Age and sex, 2006 Census. Census year 2006.” Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 97-551-XIE. July 2007. Page 13. Retrieved on 13 February 2011, from:

 The women of the Pre-1922 Generation — born before 1922

 The women of the Pre-1922 Generation make up most of the current “very old seniors” group of the Canadian population. They had the largest number of children of the women of all the generations discussed in this article and, therefore, they have been able to rely on them for much of their support needs and companionship.

 Of Canada’s 172,100 private households in which women of the Pre-1922 Generation were the primary household maintainers in 2006, roughly 52% owned their home and 48% rented it. Of the households that owned their home, 67% lived in single-detached houses, 20% in apartment buildings and 13% in other dwellings, such as semi-detached houses, row houses, flats in duplex apartments, mobile homes and other single-attached houses.  

In spite of their advanced age, it is possible that most of these women will still wish to continue to remain in their current home for as long as possible —even if there were increasingly significant changes in their health or living arrangements. As a result, there will be a growing demand for home modifications, new technologies, assistive devices, and a range of personal, home and community support services designed to help them remain independent in their home.

 Those who may not be able to remain in their current homes any longer will most likely prompt a demand for alternative forms of accommodation, such as supportive housing and assisted living.  

It is, therefore, very apparent that over the next decade or so, Canada’s housing and support service industries will be increasingly challenged and given the opportunity to find innovative ways of addressing the rapidly changing needs of the women of this generation.

 The women of the Baby-Boomers’ Parents Generation — born between 1922 and 1938

 The women of the BBP Generation were between 7 and 17 years of age during the Great Depression (1929-1939) and  between 17 and 23 years old during the time of the Second World War (1939-1945).  

 Of Canada’s 815,400 private households in which women of the BBP Generation were the primary household maintainers in 2006, roughly 62% owned their home and 38% rented it. Of the households that owned their home, just over 66% lived in single-detached houses, roughly 18% in apartment buildings and 16% in other dwellings, such as semi-detached houses, row houses, flats in duplex apartments, mobile homes and other single-attached houses. 

Whether they live in single-detached houses, apartment buildings or other dwelling — and rent or own their home— BBP women will have two major housing choices: they can stay where they are, or they can move elsewhere.

The decisions of those who decide to stay where they are will most likely result in growing demands for home renovations —such as installing extra handrails along stairs and steps; creating a bedroom, a bathroom or a laundry room on the ground floor of a 2-storey home so that they do not have to climb stairs; or creating a secondary suite that they can rent to others to supplement their income.  

The decisions of those who decide to move elsewhere will most likely result in increasing demands for new housing options —such as mingle suites, condominiums and lifestyle retirement communities.

 The women of the Second World War Generation — born between 1939-1945

 The first-year women of the Second WW Generation were born in 1939. The same year the Second WW started. It was during this War when women’s role in Canadian society started to change dramatically as many women supported the war efforts by working at jobs that were traditionally held by men, and to serve in the military, according to Veterans Affair Canada.[6]

 Of Canada’s nearly 387,000 private households in which women of the Second WW Generation were the primary household maintainers in 2006, nearly 66% owned their home and 34% rented it. Of the households that owned their home, just over 66% lived in single-detached houses, nearly 15% in apartment buildings and just over 19% in other dwellings, such as semi-detached houses, row houses, flats in duplex apartments, mobile homes and other single-attached houses.

 Increasingly, over the next few years, the women of the Second WW Generation will be reflecting on their current and future housing situation. While reflecting on a range of housing choices for themselves, these women will have a common ground in their considerations: they will be reflecting on the home type, home size, home design, home location, on the amount of home maintenance that is required and on the overall cost of housing. They will also be examining how safe and secure the home and the community in which the home is located are, and on the chances they would have to enjoy a high quality of life.

Therefore, over the coming years, as the women of the Second WW Generation make important housing decisions, they will be prompting a growing demand for a wide range of home renovations and new housing options that can meet their needs and preferences.  

 The women of the Baby-Boom Generation — born between 1946 and 1965

 BB women make up much of the current middle-age population of Canada and are part of a highly heterogeneous population group spanning over nearly 20 years and ranging from women in their mid-forties, who are in the middle or near the peak of their working careers, to women who are entering retirement age (arbitrarily defined as 65 years of age).  

Of Canada’s nearly 1,811,300 private households in which BB women were the primary household maintainers in 2006, nearly 67% owned their home and 33% rented it. Of the households that owned their home, just over 69% lived in single-detached houses, nearly 11% in apartment buildings and 20% in other dwellings, such as semi-detached houses, row houses, flats in duplex apartments, mobile homes and other single-attached houses.

 Baby boomers have been having an impact on housing and communities since the early 1980’s, when the first baby boomers started to reach age 36. For example, throughout many years as their families were growing, they prompted an incredibly high demand for large single-detached houses in newly developing suburbia across Canada. And it is highly likely that they will continue to have an important impact on housing and communities for the next five decades, that is, until 2060 when they will turn 95. But what will be different at this time is that as BB women grow older, their demands will be switching gradually towards housing and communities that are more supportive of their changing needs regarding their household size, lifestyles and aging. Now that most of their children have left home, BB women’s households are much smaller than they used to be, and BB women have more time for hobbies, recreation and social activities than ever before. In addition, an increasingly number of BB women will be approaching retirement age and facing reality aging from a dramatically closer distance. For these reasons, a rapidly growing number of baby BB women will soon start considering trading their large, suburban single-detached houses for homes that are more manageable, maintenance-free and easier to live-in; and for communities that provide them with better opportunities to capitalize on their free-time, favourite hobbies and desire for increased recreation and socialization.

 With their highly heterogeneous nature, lifestyles and housing needs and preferences, BB women will not only be influencing housing demand, but also defining the types of communities and housing in which they will want to live in. Examples of the new types of housing they might be interested in would include housing for the executive women; housing for the work-from-home women; housing for single women who may want to share their housing with others; housing for single women, lone-mothers or widows, who want to live close to family and friends; housing for women in their retirement; and housing for women in the sandwich generation.

 The women of the Baby-Bust Generation  — born between 1966 and 1974

 The women of the BBust Generation are highly educated relative to the previous generations of women and make up an important component of Canada’s current labour force.

 Of Canada’s nearly 757,000 private households in which women of the BBust Generation were the primary household maintainers in 2006, just over 59% owned their home, and nearly 41% rented it. Of the households that owned their home, close to 70% lived in single-detached houses, just over 10% in apartment buildings and 20% in other dwellings, such as semi-detached houses, row houses, flats in duplex apartments, mobile homes and other single-attached houses.

Over the past few years, in particular, the women of the BBust Generation have been having important social and economic impacts on communities across Canada through their ongoing activities, such as advancing in their working careers, establishing new social networks, caring for their growing families, participating in recreational and fitness activities, forming new households, and buying or renting new homes. For instance, “from 1997 to 2003, couples in their thirties accounted for the largest proportion (40%) of first-time home buyers, because they were more likely to have formed independent households and there were simply more of them.”[7]

 In the future, as BBust women continue to rise in society, we will most likely see an increasing number of them pursuing homeownership. And this, in turn, will most probably result in a steady and gradual demand for new and innovative types of housing and community services.

 The women of the Echo Generation — born between 1975 and 1995

 The girls and women of the Echo Generation grew up in a knowledge-based era in which innovation in technology and communications revolutionized the way people live, think, create, communicate, entertain, socialize and work. Indeed, this has also been an era in which the world has become more connected and accessible than ever before.

  Of Canada’s nearly 766,400 private households in which women of the Echo Generation were the primary household maintainers in 2006, just over 34% owned their home and nearly 66% rented it. Of the households that owned their home, close to 61% lived in single-detached houses, just over 16% in apartment buildings and almost 23% in other dwellings, such as semi-detached houses, row houses, flats in duplex apartments, mobile homes and other single-attached houses. 

In 2006, the roughly 4.3 million girls and women of the Echo Generation made up nearly 50% of the total Echo Generation, including men. With this population size, they were nearly 90% the size of the baby-boom women’s population size (4.8 million); they also made up nearly 14% of the Canadian population. Based on these numbers alone, it may not be unreasonable to anticipate that as the women of the Echo Generation move into households of their own, they will at least have as big an impact on housing and communities as their baby boom women counterparts did.  

 The women of the Echo Generation will most likely be looking for housing that provides them with a sense of safety and security, is affordable, requires little maintenance, and is flexible enough and versatile to meet their unique and changing needs. Many will be looking for housing in which they can live on their own —owning it freehold or in a condominium, or renting it. Others will be looking for housing they can share with their peers — either owning it or co-owning it freehold or in a condominium, or renting it, or co-renting it.

 For those sharing a home —which they will probably do either for making their housing more affordable or for satisfying their desire to forming a non-family household, instead of living alone— there will be a need for homes in which all bedrooms in the home have their own private bathroom, storage space and outdoor living area, thus enabling each of the people in the sharing household to have the privacy they need and want. These homes will also need to be designed so that each of the household members, and their visitors, can enter and exit the home and use the common kitchen, washroom, dining and living facilities without interfering with the privacy of the other members of the household.  

 Over the coming years, the women of the Echo generation will also have increasingly important social and economic impacts on communities through their advancing in educational activities, initiating their working careers, establishing new social networks, participating in entertainment and recreational and fitness activities, forming new households, and buying, renting or sharing new homes. These activities, coupled with their growing desire to succeed in society, will prompt further economic growth and prosperity in communities across the country.            

 The housing tenure and types of dwellings — across six generations of women

 Chart 1 shows a summary of the distribution of the housing tenure and types of dwellings among households in which women of six different generations were the primary household maintainers in 2006. Across the six generations, the red line represents the per cent of homeowner households, the brown line represents the per cent of renter households, and the tri-coloured bars show the per cent of homeowner households that lived in each of three types of dwellings.


 Chart 1 —Source: Statistics Canada. Custom Tabulation from the 2006 Census, EO1706, August 2011. Age Groups of Primary Household Maintainer (13), Structural Type of Dwelling (10), Sex of Primary Household Maintainer (3) and Housing Tenure (4) for the Private Households of Canada, 2006 Census – 20% Sample Data

 BB women had the highest rate of homeownership (67%), followed in order by the women of the Second WW generation (66%), the BBP generation (62%), the BBust generation (59%), the Pre-1922 generation (52%), and the Echo generation (34%).    

At their age, the women of the Pre-1922, BBP and Second WW generations may have already experienced their highest level of homeownership in their lifetime. By contrast, the women of the BB, BBust and Echo generations are most likely to increase their homeownership rates in the years to come.

 Women living alone — implications for housing and communities

 In 2006, one-person households accounted for 26.8% of all Canadian households, up from 25.7% five years earlier. In the same year, just under half (47.8%) of Canadians who lived alone owned their accommodation, while just over half rented it. Women who lived alone continued to have a higher homeownership rate than their male counterparts, 48.7% compared with 46.7% for men.[8]



Chart 2 —Source: Statistics Canada. 2006. “Household Living Arrangements (11), Age Groups (20) and Sex (3) for the population in Private Households of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2006 Census” – 20% Sample Data. Statistics Canada, 2006 Census of Population, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 97-553-XCB2006018 (Canada, Code01). Retrieved on May 24, 2011, from: —Note: The percentages for all the generations, except for the Pre-1922 generation, are approximations based on Census data available for the closest age groups to the age groups of the generations.

 Chart 2 shows the distribution of men and women across six generations of Canadians (bi-coloured bars). The red line represents the per cent of women living alone and the blue line the per cent of men living alone. The women of the Pre-1922 Generation had the highest percentage of women living alone (59%), followed in order by the BBP Generation (39%), the Second WW Generation (20%), the BB Generation (11%), the BBust Generation (8%), and the Echo Generation (only 4%).   

 Among the three younger generations (BB, BBust and Echo), the proportion of women living alone was marginally lower than the proportion of their men counterparts. However, starting at the BB Generation, the situation began to reverse and the proportion of women living alone grew dramatically higher and higher and higher than the proportion of men living alone through each of the three older generations (Second WW, BBP and Pre-1922).

 Women who live alone do have implications for housing and communities. As compared to women who live in larger households, women who live alone often have fewer economic resources, fewer social supports and higher feelings of insecurity and isolation; need smaller living spaces and a wide range of housing options that can enable them to live on their own, with their peers, or near their peers, and to rent, own or co-own their home; need to live in communities —with increased safety, security and high connectivity— which allow them to have easy access to social support from family and friends and to community-based networks that can bring them together so that they can socialize with other people; and require a unique range of home and community services that can help them maintain a high quality of life.

 Women’s impacts on communities — generation by generation & across the generations

 As discussed, it is very apparent that women’s impacts on communities will only be increasing as we move into the future, and that these impacts will result in the need and demand for a wide range of housing options and community services. It is also clear that communities —cities, towns, villages and neighbourhoods— will need to be aware of the types of community attributes that women will most likely be looking for, when considering the types of communities they want to live-in. While women across the generations will have a common ground in terms of the community attributes they will be looking for, the women of each specific generation will have their own ideas about the types of community attributes that would benefit them the most (Table 2).  You, the reader, should be aware that the community attributes outlined in Table 2, under “Generation by generation,” are just examples, and that none of them should be interpreted as being exclusive of a given generation, but rather, also possibly applicable to other generations. In addition, all the attributes outlined in the table should be interpreted as also applicable to men.

Across the generations

Women, across all the generations will have a common ground: they will all want to live in communities that provide them with a sense of belonging and with the opportunities to enjoy a high quality of life by enabling them to live in a variety of housing options, be safe and secure, access the types of community services they need, and walk, bike or take convenient public transportation to go to the places they most frequently need to go every day, such as schools, work, grocery stores, shopping malls, parks and recreational areas, places for entertainment, fitness centres, and medical and health facilities.

Generation by generation

Pre-1922 women will most likely be interested in secure, safe, crime-and-ice-free sidewalks; resting places along pedestrian routes and safe street crossings; housekeeping services, meals on wheels, grocery-store shuttle services; social, companionship and religious programs; accessible public transportation; and supportive housing options in case they can no longer remain in their current homes.

BBP women would be particularly keen in living in communities that are accessible, and supportive of their overwhelming desire to live independently for as long as possible by providing them with the necessary continuum of housing and support service choices. This continuum should allow them either to live for their lifetime in the homes where they have been living for many years, or to “relocate” (if necessary) to other housing choices that can better satisfy their needs.

Second WW women will most likely be seeking communities where they can walk from their home to visit family and friends, see their doctor  and do their daily grocery shopping; participate in social, educational and recreational activities, and work as volunteers. Those living alone and in single-detached houses will most likely need snow removal and lawn-care services.

Baby boom women will be particularly interested in living in communities where they can pursue their professional careers, or their retirement and hobbies; walk or drive short distances to visit their nearby-living aging parents and grown-up children. They might also be interested in living in a community where they can walk or jog everyday of the week to keep themselves fit and healthy. Those living alone in single-detached houses might also be keenly interested in having their snow removed and/or their lawn cared-for for pay. Yet others might want to live in a community close to universities or colleges where their children can go for their higher education.

Baby-Bust women will be particularly interested in communities that offer good employment opportunities, children day-care centres, and primary and secondary education schools.  They might also be interested in living in a community that offers plenty of opportunities for fitness, social, civic and educational engagement.

Echo women will particularly be looking forward to live in “downtown like,” mixed-use residential neighbourhoods —rich in nightlife— in which they can have immediate access to parks and walking and jogging paths, fitness facilities, restaurants, bars, cafes and other places of entertainment where they can socialize with their peers on an ongoing basis. Schools and day care centres for their children, and employment opportunities for themselves will most likely be in their community priority list.

Women VS men —  impacts on housing across the generations

Women’s remarkable impacts on housing, as compared to men’s, are also being recorded in Canadian statistics. One important example can be seen as one compares levels of homeownership in year 2006 among primary household maintainers across six of the seven generations of Canadian men and women born over the past 100 years. Let us take a look.

 In 2006, there were nearly 4.7 million private households in Canada in which women were the primary household maintainers, and of these 59% owned their home. By comparison, in the same year, there were nearly 7.7 million private households in Canada in which men were the primary household maintainers, and of these 75% owned their home. By examining the individual homeownership trajectories of these two types of households by age-groups of the primary household maintainers (Chart 3), one can observe the following trends and based on them offer  two conclusions:


  Chart 3 — Source: Statistics Canada. Custom Tabulation from the 2006 Census, EO1706, August 11, 2011,Age Groups of Primary Household maintainer (13),Structural Type of Dwelling (10), Sex of Primary Household Maintainer (3) and Housing Tenure (4)for the Private Households of Canada, 2006,Census – 20% sample Data


 Trend one: —throughout all the age groups, the percentages of households in which men were the primary household maintainers were higher than the percentages of households in which women were the primary household maintainers.

Trend two: —the smallest gap between the percentage trajectory of the households in which men were the primary household maintainers and the trajectory of the households in which women were the primary household maintainers, was seven percentage points and occurred at ages 15- 24. By comparison, the largest gap was 19 percentage points and occurred at age 85+.

Trend three:  —the households in which women of the younger generations are the primary households maintainers had the best chances to reach homeownership parity with their men’s households counterparts. 

 Conclusion one: —as women continue to rise in society— it is very reasonable to think that an increasing number of households in which women are the primary household maintainers will lead their way towards reaching homeownership parity with their men households counterparts. It is also very reasonable to think that it will be the households in which women of the younger generations are the primary households maintainers who will have the earliest and best chances to reach that homeownership parity with their men households counterparts. 

 Conclusion two: an increasing number of homeowner households in which women are the primary household maintainers will mean growing demands for housing in the future.

 There is, however, a caveat which temporarily concerns the validity of the latter conclusion: will  households in which men are the primary household maintainers carry their current share of homeownership into the future, or will they progressively lose some of it as the homeownership share among their women’s households counterparts increases?                    

 The impact of women’s population size   

 The size of the women’s population is another factor that can impact on housing demand and community planning over the coming years. In 2006, there were nearly 11 million women between the ages of 15 and 64 years, representing roughly 50.5% of the total Canadian working-age population.[9]Over the next 25 years, the women’ population in this age group is expected to grow from nearly 11.9 million in 2011, to close to 12.8 million by 2031 and to just over 13.2 million by 2036, representing roughly 50% of Canada’s working-age population throughout these years.[10]

 Women as an emerging economy

 Over the past 100 years, women have become an increasingly important segment of the Canadian population. They have also become widely different from generation to generation in many respects, for example, in their education, in their social status, in their economic situation, and in their needs and wants for housing and communities. More particularly, over the past twenty years, Canadian women have made substantial gains in the labour force and although in general their average income remains lower than men’s average income, the income gap between men and women has been narrowing steadily over this period. As women continue to rise in society and through this path of success become progressively more important and influential in the economic market place, it may not be unreasonable to think of them as an emerging economy.

Next steps

It is very apparent that now is the time for community planners, designers, developers, and the housing industry in general to start tapping into the housing and community needs of women.

 Analyzing the population characteristics and the latest housing trends and needs and preferences for housing and communities across the various generations of women, and comparing them with those of their men counterparts can be highly relevant to the community planning and housing industries. This analysis can result in invaluable information for analysts to estimate housing need and demand; for planners to develop appropriate community plans; and for developers, builders and designers to develop, design and build the types of housing that women and their families need, want and can afford.

 It is also important to emphasize that examining ways for the planning and housing industries to respond to women’s housing and communities needs and wants, can, not only result in innovative community and housing solutions, but also in successful business for all involved.  


 This article explored the rise of women’s role in society and the potential impacts on housing and communities. From the information presented, it is very clear that the profile of women in Canadian society continues to rise rapidly at all fronts.  

There is also much indication that women are already having significant impacts on the housing markets in all major cities across Canada. Women’s remarkable impacts on housing are also being recorded in Canadian statistics, and examples can be seen as one compares levels of homeownership among household primary maintainers across six of the seven generations of Canadian men and women born over the past 100 years.

 As the women of all these generations grow older, they will have increasingly important impacts on housing by prompting a steady and ongoing demand for a wide range of innovative housing choices that can meet their needs and preferences across generations. Nevertheless, the most significant impacts will be felt as the women of the younger generations continue to rise in society and through this successful path lead their way towards reaching homeownership parity with their men counterparts.  

 Also, as the women of all these generations grow older, they will have important impacts on communities by prompting the demand for communities that can meet their unique needs and preferences across generations. To this end, it will be necessary to examine the potential of “Smart Growth” strategies that can make communities more compact, with a good mix of land uses, and well-connected streets, sidewalks and pathways which allow easy walkability and access to support services and amenities. It will also be necessary to examine ways of creating more “Livable communities,” in which there is a choice of affordable housing and transportation, a sense of safety and security, a range of civic amenities and well-kept public places that provide opportunities for recreation, and social, cultural and civic engagement. And it will also be necessary to create more “Sustainable communities” that meet the needs of current and future generations while minimizing the impact on the environment.

 Clearly, the need and opportunities for the planning, developing, building and housing and service industries to explore and implement these ideas will exacerbate over the coming years.

 The next step, therefore, will be for local policy makers, planners, designers, developers, builders, financial institutions and others in the community and housing industries to find out, specifically at the local level, what kinds of housing and services women need; what types of living arrangements and lifestyles they want to pursue; and what sorts of communities they want to live in. Based on this information, they should be able to respond promptly by planning, developing, building and making available the types of housing choices and communities that women and their families need, want and can afford, now and in the future.


Note to readers:

This is an abbreviated version of the paper “The rise of women’s role in society: impacts on housing and communities.” To read the complete paper, click here – PDF



Luis Rodriguez is a housing and urban planning consultant, a Member of the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada and a former senior researcher with Policy and Research at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) in Ottawa. He had a highly distinguished career at CMHC, is highly recognized in Canada and abroad for his excellent work and unique expertise and innovation in seniors housing and community research, and has often spoken on Canada’s behalf at national and international housing events. He is currently examining Canada’s socio-demographic and economic trends and the potential implications for housing and communities. All illustrations in the article by, or adapted by, the author, ©2012.


 This article contains text and statistical data that have been reproduced or adapted from official work published by the Government of Canada and the reproductions or adaptations have not been produced in affiliation with, or with the endorsement of the Government of Canada.


[1]Text adapted from: Thomas, Derrick. March 8, 2010. “The Census and the evolution of gender roles in early 20th century Canada” Article. Component of Statistics Canada. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11-008-X  Canadian Social Trends Number 90. Summary, page 45 and page 42,  second paragraph in the central column of text, and Chart 1 by Dominium Bureau of Statistics, censuses of population compiled by the Canadian Century Research Infrastructure Project. Retrieved on January 12, 2011.

[2] The term “household head” is now being replaced by the term “primary household maintainer.” Primary household maintainer refers to the first person in the household identified as the one who pays the rent or the mortgage, or the taxes, or the electricity bill, and so on, for the dwelling (there are no primary household maintainers under age 15). Source: Statistics Canada, 2006 Census of Population, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 97-554-XCB2006034 (Canada, Code01). Retrieved on January 12, 2011, from

[3]Statistics Canada. Custom Tabulation from the 2006 Census, EO1706, August 2011. Age Groups of Primary Household Maintainer (13), Structural Type of Dwelling (10), Sex of Primary Household Maintainer (3) and Housing Tenure (4) for the Private Households of Canada, 2006 Census – 20% Sample Data.

[4]Adapted from: Marshall, Katherine. July 2011. Generational change in paid and unpaid work. July 12, 2011. A component of Statistics Canada Catalogue 11-008-X. Canadian Social Trends Number 92. Pages 13 (Introduction) and 22-23 (Summary). Retrieved on October 5, 2011, from:

[5]Royal LePage. 2007. “The 2007 Royal LePage Female Buyers Report,” pages 2, 3 and 10. Retrieved on April 1, 2011, from:

[6] Source: Veterans Affairs Canada. The Second World War. History. Public Information Sheet. “Women at War.” Introduction. Retrieved on October 1, 2011, from:

[7]Thomas, Derrick. October 2005. “Socio-Demographic Factors in the Current Housing Market.”Feature article in Canadian Economic Observer. October 2005. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11-010-XIB. Page 3.2, first paragraph. Retrieved on October 9,2011, from:

[8]Source: Statistics Canada, 2006 Census: Changing patterns in Canadian homeownership and shelter cost. The Daily. Wednesday, June 4, 2008. retrieved on June 17, 2011, from:

[9]Source:Statistics Canada. 2006 Census. “Age (123) and Sex (3) for the Population of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Divisions and Census Subdivisions, 2006 Census – 100% Data.” A topic-based tabulation. Statistics Canada, 2006 Census of Population, Statistics Canada -Catalogue no. 97-551-XCB2006011 (Canada, Code01). Date modified: 2011-04-07. Retrieved on May 3, 2011, from:

[10]Source: Statistics Canada. 2010. “Population Projections for Canada, Provinces and Territories 2009 to 2036.” Table 11-1, Population by age group and sex, medium-growth – historical trends (1981 to 2008) scenario (M1), July 1st —Canada, 2010 to 2036. June 2010. Page 167. Statistics Canada Catalogue No. 91-520-X. Retrieved on February 17, 2011 from:

Healthy Travel Modes: Correlations, Causality and Caution

Discussions about the negative influences of car travel as the dominant mode of mobility regularly include its potential detrimental health effects. One example is the association that was recently made between car travel and the lower average healthy life expectancy (DFLE) (by 1.5 years) of US citizens versus their OECD counterparts. The author of the article cautioned us, however, that “…this is a pretty crude analysis’ and encouraged ‘.. anybody with the skills and time to develop a better model.”

In this vein, and being neither a statistician nor a specialist, I offer a few thoughts that may help refine the analysis or shift its direction.

A short preamble first: Most seasoned researchers acknowledge that stats can almost always provide evidence for what we wish to be true. This is particularly true in social sciences, such as the case at hand. Inadvertently, even with all their mathematical rigour, stats often conceal as much as they reveal (a fact unintentionally made unintelligible in the “study limitations” sections).

To expand the horizon of the health-travel conversation, I explore additional statistics that I believe need to be assimilated into it. These may reveal the multiplicity of factors and their interactions and raise questions about misapplied correlations and improbable causalities.   This article does not aim to deny the merit of proposing policies to increase active travel (a worthwhile goal) but seeks to limit the licence to use statistics incautiously to prove their value. A first step in that direction is to question the appropriateness of longevity (or disability-free life expectancy) as an indicator.  

Longevity and motorization in the US

Life expectancy in the US has risen constantly in the automotive 20th century from 49.2 in 1900 to 77.5 years in 2003 or, simply put, 28 years were added to 50; a stunning cultural achievement.  The same is true for Canada where 31 years were added to 49 since 1901. For a century dominated by motorized transport, which in its early decades caused a virtual slaughter on city streets and, without catalytic converters until the late 70s (combined with a very inefficient fleet), produced a very noxious, toxic environment, this upward trend is counter-intuitive.  Such a trend raises the question of the exact role automobiles plays in the loss of life-years.

The first fifty years of auto-mobility, however, bad as they might have been, are not typical of a general lifestyle that relies predominantly on cars for transport and they could be sidestepped as unrepresentative. The true motorization of daily life took hold from the 50s on, the Interstate Highway era, with the expansion of cities into vast first and second tier suburbs.

A comparison of VMTs and longevity for the 2nd half of the 20th century shows again a fairly good correlation.  In these 50 years, the per capita VMTs in the US rose from about 3,000 miles in 1950 to about 9,000 miles in 2000, an astonishing 300% percent increase. Yet, during the same period 7.4 years were added to the average lifespan of US citizens. Are we to conclude from these figures that motorization aided longevity? Surely not, based just on one covariance.  We don’t know in what ways auto-mobility could mediate a life-span increase, except by the mundane and likely insignificant, speedier access to hospitals for accident victims and heart or stroke patients. Another speculative connection, supported by research, is the opportunity it provides for frequent visits to the countryside, a confirmed de-stressor. Cottages, for example, a cherished possession of about 10% of households, would be entirely inaccessible on weekends or other occasions without auto-mobility. The same holds true for pristine and remote National Reserve sites. Abundant research has shown a correlation between proximity to nature and better population health but we don’t know whether cottage owners or frequent hikers fair better than others. Consequently, lacking the list and the data on the mediating mechanisms, the question of a potential positive influence of auto-mobility and its magnitude remains unanswered for now. And, based on the simple countervailing evidence, neither can we assert that this dramatic three-fold increase in VMTs had a calamitous effect on health or longevity.

Zooming in on mechanisms

On the negative influence side, we can at least speculate on the possible mechanisms (Chart 1). Eight health problems are associated with inadequate physical activity, of which driving is one version.  Of these eight, heart and cerebrovascular diseases have decreased dramatically in the US (down by roughly two thirds since 1950), though they still remain as principal causes. Cancers, of which there are many types and have many, and unknown, potential causes (including a chemical overload in foods, drinks and air), have remained practically unchanged. Diabetes returned to the 1950s level after a drop in the 80s. Respiratory diseases have increased and air pollution could be a partial cause for the increase. (Personal driving, however, is but one contributor to air pollution, at about 60% of the total emissions attributed to transport, which is responsible for about 27.3 % of emissions from all sources; this translates to about 17% of the total.)

 The fifth, and direct, cause of life loss, accidents, also declined substantially.  In the US fatalities fell from 15.91 to 11.01 per 100.000 people between 1994 and 2009; a 42% decrease in a slow but continuing trend. In Canada absolute fatalities dropped from about 3,200 in 1996  to 2,200 by 2009; down by 32 percent in 14 years even though car numbers and VKTs continued to increase.


  Chart 1: Principal Causes of Death in the US – time series 1950, 1980 and 2002

Source: CRS compilation from National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), Health, United States, 2005 with Chartbook on Trends in the Health of Americans, Table 29.  

 Are we to conclude from these downward trends in disease progression and fatalities that a 300% increase in auto-mobility has no significant impact in aggravating the causes of death?  Or, if it did, speculate that other countervailing factors mask the effect?   Until we fully understand the mechanisms of the onset of these diseases and the precise attribution to factors that trigger their emergence, the jury on how auto-mobility modifies lifespan, whether negatively or positively and to what net extent, is still out.

Of the mechanisms, we know that obesity, an early sign of possible negative health outcomes, can have several triggers acting singly or in concert. One is a sedentary lifestyle and a second is diet. Physically passive tasks include driving but also sedentary work, pastimes and hobbies. Driving has been shown to correlate with the odds of obesity increase as have lack of exercise, education, stress, and food amount and type. Note that the fifties, the highway era, also saw the widespread adoption of television soon to become the key media for communication, politics, advertizing and free entertainment, inducing more passivity at home. The same era also saw an exponential growth of fast food chains that paid little attention to dietary rules. These covariances in cultural traits also imply a respective increase in the probable triggers of obesity aside from and in addition to driving. The exact contribution of each remains undetermined.

On the job scene, during these fifty years, the service sector overtook the production sector in employment. More jobs became office desk jobs, while others increasingly involved more driving (e.g. salespersons, school-bus drivers, pizza delivery etc).  Studies show significantly increased odds of obesity among office workers. Increased odds also correlate well with lower education levels and rise dramatically with stress-induced overeating.  Diet has been shown as a key element in the maintenance of a healthy weight. The Japanese for example, have a very low obesity rate (3.2% in 2003) and are said to owe their highest longevity (81.8 years in 2002) among nations partly to eating predominantly fish instead of red meat. Curiously, just after the war, the same normal-weight Japanese had one of the lowest life expectancies in the world a fact that excludes genetic influences and makes the negative impact of increased auto-mobility, which occurred mostly after the war, a moot point.

If obesity can be shown to correlate well with life expectancy, deciphering the relative magnitude of impact of each of its triggers can help rationalise and prioritize policy responses.  Focusing exclusively or predominantly on driving may sidestep great opportunities for speedy, effective action. However, if Chart 2 were taken at face value, only a tenuous correlation, if any, between obesity and life expectancy can be construed. Other factors may be at work that require a closer look.

The curious case of Denmark

The logic goes that if we walk and bike more and use public transport we should expect to live, on average, longer and healthier lives. As it happens, we can test this hypothesis with a real life example, an OECD member, Denmark.  Of  fifteen EU nations ( Chart 2), Denmark had the second lowest car ownership rates in 2004 (354 per 1000), had the highest walking share of trips, the second highest bicycling rate ( 18% in 2003) the fourth lowest obesity rate at 11.4% (2008)  and a below average fatal accident rate (at 7 victims per 100k pp in 2005 ).  Yet, in 2006, Denmark’s life expectancy was the lowest among the fifteen and identical to the  the US’ (at 77.8years), where active modes of transport are insignificant and obesity rates are about three times (33.8% in 2008) the Danish. Clearly factors other than travel mode choice must be at work.


 Chart 2: Life Expectancy and Obesity Rates in 15 European Countries. Source: OECD report, 2009 with data from 2007 or latest available.

The second leader in walking, bicycling and transit use,  Netherlands, fairs no better than average; 1.5 years lower than Italy which has the second highest car ownership after Luxemburg, an average walking share and third lowest bicycling share (at 3%) and with an obesity rate in the same range.

The converse relationship does not bear out either. Greece ranking fourth in obesity(18.1% in 2008), about 50% higher than Denmark, with the lowest car ownership rate, lowest level of walking among fifteen EU countries and by far the highest fatal accident rate, had an average lifespan of 79.2  or 1.4 years higher than the walking/biking Denmark and the compulsive-driving US.  Similarly, the UK showing more than twice Denmark’s obesity rate has a higher life expectancy by a whole year. Data from two other industrialized countries that are highly motorized add more complexity to the puzzle of presumed correlations. Australia and Canada had an 81.5 and 80.9 years of life expectancy in 2008, respectively; a 2.5 year difference from US and Denmark. (Canada obesity 23.1% in 2004; twice Denmark’s).Can we conclude from these inconsistent and contradictory figures that a correlation exists between level of active transportation, and life expectancy?

A similarly thorny line of reasoning supposes that the action path of more driving in reducing life years is via engendering obesity which in turn leads to chronic diseases. Charts 3 and 4 undermine the driving-to-obesity-to-disease path by furnishing statistics on the incidence of diabetes and heart disease.


 Chart 3: Obesity rates and incidence of diabetes in EU countries.  Source: OECD report 2009 (Belgium- data missing)

Chart 3 shows no correlation between rates of obesity and incidence of diabetes.  UK with the highest rate of obesity shows the lowest incidence of diabetes and conversely the least obese nation, Italy, at less than half the UK rate shows almost double the incidence of diabetes.  Germany with an average obesity rate has the highest incidence of diabetes. Denmark and the Netherlands, the nations with the highest levels of active transport do not vary significantly from the average incidence (6.0), contrary to what might be expected. Clearly, other, unknown mediating factors between obesity and diabetes and, consequently, between driving and diabetes are at work. For heart disease, chart 4 also shows hard to reconcile variances. The spikes and troughs of variations in obesity are not mirrored in the corresponding disease incidence.

The Denmark example would be disquieting, if we took the longevity indicator at face value. It would mean that, if the US were to achieve Denmark’s levels of active transportation, a task that might take several generations of policy implementation, it may arrive at square one of the longevity track. Clearly, longevity seems a poor indicator of the effectiveness of active transport in improving health. We need an alternative, or many.


 Chart 4 : Obesity rates and incidence of heart disease by sex in 15 European countries. (M= men, W=women)

Troubling trends

Another conundrum to ponder is the trends in car ownership, mode share and obesity in countries that are leading the way in active transportation. In the two top bicycle/walk users Netherlands, Denmark car ownership rose by 215%, 178%  respectively in 35 years (1970 to 2005). In the same period, US car ownership rose by 190 %, a similar range, though starting at a higher point. Between 1952 and 2005 Netherlands saw the Bike Kilometres Travelled (BKTs) drop to almost half but still leading Europe. Britain’s BKTs dropped by an astonishing 80 percent in that same period. Netherlands and Denmark saw their obesity rate double since 1988 and the same is true for Sweden yet another leader in walking and biking. These trends are both surprising and disquieting: when people who have experienced the benefits of an active lifestyle abandon it in increasing numbers, the prospects dim for everyone.

Is the rise in obesity in these leading countries caused by increased auto-mobility? We would need a very sophisticated  analysis to isolate its influence.  Are these nations heading in the NA direction while NA is attempting to emulate their highest achievements? A perplexing question worth investigating in detail.

Getting to the fine grain differences

If we can’t explain these incongruities, there are other potential correlations that beg for our attention, interpretation and, possibly, choice of interventions.  For example, differences in life expectancy among States and races.


  Chart 5: Income and life expectancy in 12 States, selected on the basis of their respective obesity ratings.

Chart 5 shows a fairly good correlation between income and life expectancy among specific states that were chosen to cover the gamut of recent obesity ratings from highest to lowest. Yet income by itself   does not explain disease; its effect must be deciphered in terms of its mediating role.

A recent UK study, the Marmot Review, found a 9 year life expectancy and a 16 year DFLE difference between the least and the most deprived citizens. A Canadian Study found a difference in life expectancy between the highest and lowest income quintiles of 6 years for men and 3 years for women. Digging deeper, the research identified one psychological/ biological mediating mechanism – the sense of control of one’s life circumstances. Having less control (choice, options), that comes with lower income, increases stress and weakens the immune system with the consequence that disease finds an easy target.

Chart 6 shows that as incomes rise obesity rates tend to fall, a seemingly counterintuitive trend: a) lower income could well mean less food on the table and b) more manual, low-paid jobs, therefore more calorific expenditure. However, lower income could also imply higher unemployment rates, therefore increased average sedentary life and also increased stress. It can also mean a poor diet regime with predominantly inexpensive but unhealthy foods. Note that the lower incomes and higher obesity rates occur in the southern states where African-Americans form a significant proportion of the population; though still a minority (one region where they form a majority is the District of Columbia, the outlier in chart 5. There has been a constant gap in unemployment between whites and blacks that fluctuated between 5 and 10 percent in the last 30 years. In 2003 African-Americans maintained a persistent life expectancy difference of 6.3 years.  

  Chart 6: Obesity rates and median income in 12 selected States

Compiled statistics break down the overall race difference to specific disparities in ailments such as 34% difference in Cardiovascular diseases, followed by 21.1% difference in infections, and a 10.7% difference in trauma. These are substantial differences.  It seems that, as the picture becomes more fine-grained, it becomes harder to ascertain whether the entire 6.3 year racial disparity or a certain (unknown) portion of it can be attributed to driving.

The  puzzle of childhood obesity

While driving to work or shopping could be a contributing factor to adult obesity, its role may be less clear among children. The US CDC reports that obesity has tripled among children between the ages of 6 and 11 in the last 30 years and has gone from 5% to 18.1% among children of 12 to 19 years of age. These young people, who are not drivers, will soon merge into the adult population seeking an explanation for their handicap. A detailed analysis is needed to accommodate this data into the driving-to-obesity hypothesis.


Predictably, and also inevitably, I used statistics to question conclusions drawn from other statistics and to, hopefully, expose a web of complex relations. I beg for the reader’s leniency if they find I was careless in using them.

We started with the 1.5 year difference in average DFLE between the US and OECD countries and ended up with a conundrum about the meaning of many differences: Differences among states in the US, the race difference, differences among EU countries,  the curious puzzles of US versus Denmark, Denmark and Greece, Denmark and two OECD more auto-dependent nations. We also saw the many faces of obesity and the influence of income, education, job type, sedentary lifestyle, diet and stress could have in triggering it. In addition, we saw obesity being just one of many potential contributors to life threatening ailments.

Each study that looks at specific obesity-generating triggers recommends policies to combat them. Consequently, there is a plethora of potential action plans. Each begs the question of effectiveness, time span and, inevitably, cost efficiency. Few attempts have been made at these questions.

Given these intriguing disparities and unsolved puzzles, the question of meaningful correlations between auto-mobility and health remains wide open to finer grain investigations. The challenge of effective interventions is formidable and pressing. Caution in using the Procrustean bed of statistics is clearly warranted; many hypotheses died on it.

Fanis Grammenos

Few of many sources

1 CRS Report for Congress Life Expectancy in the United States Updated August 16, 2006

Laura B. Shrestha, Specialist in Demography, Domestic Social Policy Division

 2 Table 705. Household Income–Distribution by Income Level and State: 2008Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2008 American Community Survey; B19001, “Household Income in the Past 12 Months” and B19013, “Median Household Income in the Past 12 Months (In 2008 Inflation-Adjusted Dollars),” accessed January 2010.

3. OECD (2010), Health at a Glance: Europe 2010, OECD Publishing.

4. David R. Bassett, Jr., John Pucher, Ralph Buehler, Dixie L. Thompson, and Scott E. Crouter,2008 Walking, Cycling, and Obesity Rates in Europe, North America, and Australia,  Human Kinetics.

 5. Cynthia L. Ogden, Ph.D., and Margaret D. Carroll, M.S.P.H., Division of Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys:  Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Extreme Obesity Among Adults: United States, Trends 1960–1962 Through 2007–2008  


This article first appeared in

Can Money Grow on Trees?

When calculating the cost-effectiveness of any operation economists talk about externalities. Mostly they mean the costs or damages to others either downstream or in the future that are excluded from a calculation.

But are externalities always a cost?   Could they be benefits, unforeseen profits and, if so, how would we know?

To know confidently, we need to do more arithmetic than fits on the back of a cigarette package. Incidentally, that package is a perfect case of an externality, when a nearby smoker inadvertently loads my health bill; he only pays for the costs of cigarette production. Or take the case of the new glass tower whose reflected sunlight caused an overload on the cooling systems of an adjacent building. Could someone have calculated in advance the effect and cost of the additional cooling capacity?  

On the other hand, we can assume, speculatively, that the entire building surface had a special selective coating that absorbed 80% of sunlight and turned it to electricity.  In that case, the math would show a reduction in the cooling load and production of power, two profits, a direct and an indirect profit.

There are many cases of profit-making, of unintended benefits, of positive externalities, if you wish, and, luckily, the complicated arithmetic has already been done objectively, reliably (see reference).

Two of the many design elements in a neighbourhood development, of which the unaccounted ledger lines could be in the profit column, are trees and parks. Usually they are factored in as the necessary cost of compliance with municipal regulations or a cost for an attractive, picturesque streetscape. 

Research and good math now show that they can be moved from the debit to the credit column: they can earn money in the short and long run. They do so in many ways: by cutting cooling and heating costs; reducing water runoff; reducing garden watering; saving on conveyance piping;  stormwater plant load; capturing and storing CO2 and harmful emissions; reducing ambient temperatures and raising property values and the tax base, without including hard to price health benefits.

Here are some rounded figures of what one tree can do in an average year for a house, a neighbourhood, a municipality and the city:

  • Intercept  9,000 litres (2000 gal) of rainfall
  • Save 200kWh of electricity in cooling
  • Save 3 mil Btu  in heating
  • Capture  0.7 kg of four harmful air pollutants (added for simplicity)
  • Capture  200 kg  of CO2
  • Reduce storm infrastructure costs 
  • Reduce storm end-treatment costs
  • Increase property value near a planted space

To turn all these additive benefits into money, let’s take an example of a 16 ha (40 acre) neighbourhood with 400 houses and 500 trees, some on its streets and some in a local small park. We take the available summary calculations and, using averages for simplicity, we get the following figures separated by the beneficiaries: the homeowner, the developer and the city at large (all of us):

Total monetary gain in savings from 500 trees and a small park:

  • The homeowners get $29,000 in reduced heating and cooling costs combined.
  • The city saves $245,000 in infrastructure costs and $200 in water treatment costs
  • The developer gets a share of the upfront savings in  storm water infrastructure
  • The capture of CO2 saves $1200 and is equivalent to removing  100 cars from the road
  • The capture of harmful pollutants saves $2,200
  • The developer earns an average of 16% sale price premium

    Trees add delight to the street but also value to properties


Altogether this neighbourhood would save $267,000 the first year and $32,000 each additional year.  And energy prices go up and the value of carbon increases in trading so will the hidden benefits of this neighbourhood. And we just scratched the surface; more positive outcomes from the avoidance of energy gas production, the water quality benefits the reduced frequency of garden watering and so on the chain continues.

The developer has two additional hidden benefits: An alluring sales pitch and, most likely, faster sales, a critical factor in profitability.

Green profits grow like trees or business, slowly; and they last. No one would plant an olive tree expecting to sell olives a year later. It takes about 10 for the first meagre crop, but the tree can last over 1000 years; it is a long term investment plan; a variety of green chip shares. Same is true for planting trees and creating neighbourhood parks.

These generalized and simplified figures avoid the confusing conditionals that appear in research reports.  They paint the big picture, the order of magnitude of the uncounted benefits. The details may vary in each case. But the overall picture is bright: the veiled currency that has been eluding circulation is green.


Reference: Center for Neighbourhood Technology, 2010: The value of green infrastructure


Bumpy rides a thing of the past, again.


Does a driver exist who actually likes speed bumps and humps?  If not, what are these road skin inflammations doing at mid-block or at intersections?

 It seems ironic that we paved bumpy, dirt roads to ease our trip and then, some half a century later, we purposely create bumps that turn it unpleasant. It’s also strange that at intersections, our three natural options for continuing on are often curtailed to two or just one; surprised and stuck with no choice! These changes sure look like embarrassing afterthoughts.

Bollards turn a 4-way junction into 3-way. Landscaping offers a relief.

We normally do renovations to systems that no longer meet requirements which stem from a new understanding of health, safety or efficiency concerns. We change steep stairs to prevent falls or upgrade an electrical service to power more home appliances.

But why remodel streets? After all they have functioned for hundreds of years.  True, but in the last hundred much has changed in them that slipped in unnoticed.

First, speed on the streets increased from a leisurely 5 km/hr to a hurried 30 and up to fifty; a six-fold increase at least. Then the size of their occupants increased from about a four square feet, a man’s footprint, to a driver’s of 200 square feet; a 50-fold increase. In addition, noise levels climbed from the human chatter of 50 decibels to the truck and motorcycle clatter of 75 decibels, more than a 100-fold increase in ear pressure.  And finally, a subtle existential angst pervades the streets; a wolf has found its way into a sheep’s pen; risk is lurking at every corner. These entirely new urban conditions call for remodelling; and remodelling we did and it will be going on for a while.

Take the cross intersection for example, a relic from the past. When people come to it, it’s a meeting place, but when cars reach it, it turns into a conflict zone. There are 32 ways that cars can collide in it. Unless the intersection is signed or signalized, every driver naturally believes in his right to act and move first.  Stats show that 4-way intersections have much higher frequency of collisions than the 3-way alternative.  The lesson learned, neighbourhoods started to remodel their 4-way junctions. One approach is to close one of the crossing streets at the intersection, promptly turning it into a 3-way.  Bollards, a clump of trees or planters make the closure an attractive feature. The second means is to install a traffic circle in the exact centre of the intersection. From a driver’s perspective, this addition has the effect of turning the crossing point into four virtual3-way junctions; direct forward movement is not an option. As with the closure, the circle can host shrubs, flowers, or a tree improving the street ambiance. Closures and traffic circles are just two of many ways of adapting the old network to the traffic it did not anticipate.

When remodelling or designing neighbourhoods for traffic, two goals are uppermost:  Safety and flow and in that order. 

What can traffic circles do for safety? Seattle’s traffic safety program, starting in the 90s, evaluated the impact of 119 traffic circles on accidents and injuries. It showed a whopping 90 percent reduction in both. And when counting all costs related to accidents, the installation proved convincingly cost effective. Five hundred more installations followed.

 Vancouver did its own renovation and remodelling of certain streets. It included street closures, traffic circles, diverters, curb extensions, and extra traffic signs. A study, that looked at the before and after frequencies of collisions and injuries in the entire district, found that there was a general reduction of accidents by 15 percent and, within neighbourhoods, of about 25 percent.

A small circle, provides a great safety bonus

But do traffic circles improve flow? Surprisingly, yes. Even though drivers slow down to negotiate the circle and other cars, the total network flow performance improves.

The lesson: neighbourhoods can do without the old four way intersections and improve safety to boot. Traffic circles are smarter bumps that cars drive by not over, recapturing the comfort of a smooth drive.

 These renovations bring welcome improvements to an antiquated network system.

New neighbourhoods can use the lessons from these upgrades and provide a safe and well functioning network from the start. The techniques are easy to apply:

a)      Avoid intersections entirely within a neighbourhood; unimaginable but possible.

b)      When junctions are necessary, use the 3-way version

c)      Use turns, not curves or bumps,  to slow down cars

d)      On streets surrounding the neighbourhood use traffic circles at the intersections

With these features in place, bumpy rides can be a thing of the past, again.

Ref: Seattle’s traffic safety program:


Green them and they will walk – How to get people on a healthy path

Planners feel uncomfortable when reading the stats on the prevailing trends in travel:  Car ownership is growing steadily, personal driving is rising, walking and bicycling are declining, and fewer children walk to school. Also discomforting are the stats about increasing levels of obesity among adults and children and the growing number of cases of lung and other complications due to poor air quality.  This unease propels a strong drive to change how communities are planned and built.  Can different planning techniques stall or reverse these trends?

black to green grid
The uniform car grid morphs into a pedestrian haven

Take air pollution for example, some 18% of which stems from personal driving. For their first 80 years in the city, cars were running without catalytic converters; the unhealthy result was inevitable but also unsustainable.  In comes the “cat-con” car in the 80s that reduces smog dramatically; a simple, inexpensive, regulated device with an enormous positive effect; same city, more cars, more driving but far fewer noxious gases. Planners and developers had little to do either with the problem or its solutions. Looking fifty years ahead, fuel-cell, full electric and hybrid cars, now in production, will send fewer or no gases out the exhaust pipe; same city, no pollution.  When driving must be done, improved technology could make it healthier for people and the planet alike.

But rehabilitating the tailpipe still leaves parents, children and everyone else stuck in their cars driving to nearby or long destinations; an unhealthy routine, particularly for children.  Can people be enticed out of their cars and on to their bikes and feet? What do we know about habits, inducements and their influence? What can a developer do about less driving in a new subdivision?

We know that travel to work accounts for about 40% of all driving and understand that shifting it to other means is a long shot. A CMHC study (2010) showed that there was no difference in the use of transit among eight suburban neighbourhoods (at a mere 9%) even though four were designed to be transit-friendly. Evidently, the decisive factors lie outside the developer’s subdivision plans.

Neighbourhood Opportunity

But at the neighbourhood scale, the developer can have an influence. We know increasingly more and with greater accuracy about design features that could lead to more walking in the neighbourhood.  It all rests on two key concepts: connectivity and permeability.  Connectivity translates into how often people can turn a corner within their neighbourhood. If you can count at least 30-to-40 intersections in a square kilometer, check “good”. More is better.  Permeability is about filtering and preferential treatment. When walkers, joggers and cyclists can keep going beyond where cars can, they get an advantage. Research findings confirm that they prefer it that way.  

Filtered permeability can be best grasped with a drawing. It shows a classic uniform grid (Portland) and one possible modification (right) to benefit pedestrians. The grid with its high connectivity (160 intersections per km) remains the same, but half the streets become paths for pedestrians and bikes. Cars have access to all blocks but not all streets. Permeability favours pedestrians; the joy of walking intensifies.

One more idea added to these two completes the enticement platter – proximity.   It means having destinations nearby such as parks, playgrounds, convenience stores, schools, barbers and such.

A street transformed from car-realm to people haven

The good news

The results are in for these three alluring attributes that would predictably and measurably increase walking.

The CMHC study (above) showed that the two layouts with the highest connectivity  scored 100% more walking trips above the average of all eight neighbourhoods and about 300% more than those with the least walking trips. Not only did they have high connectivity, they also had the highest number of pedestrian paths. The positive influence of the paths is made clearer by the contrasting numbers of a neighbourhood with  a low walking score had just as high connectivity as the ones with top walking scores  but  had few pedestrian paths. Connectivity  works best when complemented with paths.

More and precise evidence comes from a Memorial University (2010) study: of seven neighbourhood designs two stand above the rest with 25%  and 32% more walking in the set; both have paths separate from the regular streets . In addition to increasing walking, they also lowered driving by about 10%. 

An earlier CMHC study (2008) found that the presence of separate paths increased walking by 11.3% and its higher pedestrian connectivity reduced local car kilometers by 23%.  Separately, another study concluded that having a recreation, green space close to home would get more young people walking.

Though locally reduced  driving remains in the range of 78 (lowest) to 81(average) percent of all trips. But we can now trust that it is possible to get more people back on their feet. Green their streets and they will walk.

A Street you can call your own


There are two languages in currency that we use to talk about streets: one used by people who live on them and another favoured by transportation engineers. The first expresses our experience of streets and the other describes what each does in a “system”, the transportation network system.

People say they live on a “residential” street or a quiet street, on “main” street or a busy street; words that express an atmosphere, a feeling with always a hint of affection or disapproval. In the “system” or “network” these streets could be “local”, “collector” or “arterial”; neutral labels that ascribe daily car volumes, and imply number of lanes and permissible speeds; people and milieu are out of the picture. This impersonal language stems from a gradual shift in the street ownership from full people ownership to shared ownership with the car, the majority holder.

A narrow exclusively pedestrian street that evokes a welcoming feeling

 Streets were places where people strolled, kids played games and tricks, conversations started, adults traded ideas and goods and, occasionally, a spontaneous display of talent took place; that was the “public realm”, fully owned and used by people. A new owner, the car, now claims rights to the street space and a new craft has emerged to accommodate its requirements. Along with the craft came a new language, the “system” language of classification. When it is translated into design on the ground the result is inhospitable, unfriendly, unattractive streetscapes. 

To shape a welcome outcome when planning a street, the question to ask is: Whose street is it? 

To recover the craft of making streets people bond to, the path may start by rediscovering the meaning of original street words and their story. “Avenue,” for example, originally meant an approach leading to a country house, usually framed by a double row of trees. On the map, such an approach would resemble an impasse, a private lane with just one big house on it.  Later, avenue also meant a spacious road with large, shady trees on both sides. But shortly after, seen as serving primarily the car, it lost its trees and turned into a naked, wide, asphalt-and-cement road with up to 25,000 cars passing by each day.  But this need not be the case.

A similar story unfolds around the boulevards. Originally, they were wide promenades that replaced the obsolete fortifications. Fully landscaped, with spacious sidewalks, they created a country-like atmosphere often enhanced by an occasional park. Street crossing happened casually and leisurely anywhere, at whim. And, following the trace of the defence walls, boulevards circled the city. They were so charming and so conducive to socializing that they even generated a new class of citizens, those who frequented them: the boulevardiers. But being wide and continuous, boulevards naturally fell prey to the service of motor transport, losing the atmosphere that made their name synonymous with charm and leisure time. But this need not be the case when designing new ones.

The avenue story tells us about the importance of quiet and nature in a residential street. And since the majority of streets in every city are residential, there is a lot of opportunity for innovation. First, limit car access to residents-only or make them entirely pedestrian. People-permeable cul-de-sacs or loops do this well. Then use mostly 3-way intersections and use turns to slow cars down. Be generous with tree planting. Nothing surpasses the delight and comfort of a street that has been canopied over by a double row of trees. With these elements in place, majority ownership shifts to residents; and they love it. It sounds almost too good to be practical. Yet this is exactly what was built in Vauban, Germany and it changed our  perception of what’s possible.

The boulevard story brings the message of space, plenty of space – for people. When planning them, change the balance between car and people space. Instead of the now usual four or six car lanes to one half equivalent people-space on the sides, make it four to one or to two. Similarly, when six lanes are allocated to the car, give two or three to people, a la Champs Elysees. This means a virtual linear park on either side of the boulevard with three or more rows of trees and a bike path separate from the road. Add trees and shrubs to a wide median also. The traffic is still there, but now people have plenty of room to walk, stroll, loiter and chat in a charming milieu, their own realm. Alternatively, separate the two streams of traffic by a building block and fill it with a variety of public spaces that make it a predominantly pedestrian area.

Using these techniques, streets can become places that people can call their own.

Learning from the Laureates

Read any magazine, report, newspaper or municipal pamphlet and you are likely to run multiple times into a word pair that almost lost its meaning because of frequent and careless repetition – “sustainable development”.  Just as frequently another brand label is used, often to stand for the same idea –“smart growth”.

While principles, policies and guidelines proliferate, examples that put them in practice are rare. In fact, there are fewer than it seems from the press coverage because numerous developments claim the brand but lack the essential attributes to deserve it. And then there is the issue of extent – “one swallow does not make a summer…” Some projects simply stop at one good idea.  With an overflow of claims and labels, it becomes next to impossible to decipher which the “must have” elements are that can put a project in the advanced rank. That’s when you turn to the laureates.

Children are the most frequent occupants of streets followe by adults. Cars are rare and transient.

Few projects have been recognized internationally multiple times for the bold, decisive steps they took, even against prevailing wisdom, as this one: Vauban, a suburb of Freiburg, Germany, one of the most renown and acclaimed recent developments. Let’s make a virtual pilgrimage.

Vauban’s creators recognize that reducing consumption of all dwindling resources is the cornerstone of environmental sustainability: doing more with less. Energy use is the obvious place to start and driving dominates the consumption pie chart; normally, driving uses as much or more as all other household energy needs combined, incredible as it may seem.

Bold step one: reduce driving within or from and to Vauban. Only about fifty percent of residents own cars, by choice. Some don’t want or need them at all, others only sporadically and, when they do, borrow one of the shared cars for a fee. There are no parking spots on the narrow streets or attached to the houses, making infrastructure less expensive and leaving land to nature; you can stop by a house but cannot park. Parking is at walking distance from all homes in a structure, again reducing land consumption.

A fused grid street network disallows cut-through traffic and give priority to pedestrians and bikes

Getting around Vauban is easy on foot and bike. The layout of the streets, paths and parks ensures that it is faster and more enjoyable to walk and bike than to drive. In a u-turn from prevalent rulebooks, the plan uses connected loops and cul-de-sacs for its residential streets, supplemented by a dense network of paths. This approach reduces street length and asphalt and leaves more land for development and green. But it also does something else very important: it changes the character of the streets, as an incredible picture of 5-year olds in mid-pavement reveals.

Rarely, if ever, kids would be so care-free and posessive on a regular street

Bold step two: Rail for getting to and from town. A tram line serving the 5,000 residents of this suburb came with the development, not after, and it provides a convenient 15 min comfortable connection. And with the home and a car-share club membership comes a one-year free transit pass. Tram or bike, the town centre is truly accessible.

Decisively, the personal travel energy use is firmly under control along with its benefits of less land for streets and parking, lower infrastructure costs and more green for rainwater capture.

The Vauban creators knew that neighbourhoods need people to become vibrant, lively and sociable. Hence,

Bold step three: Urban density, the familiar density of the old town, about 15 units per acre. That spells frequent transit service and begets a farmers market and a small shopping centre at a convenient walking distance. More kids in the park, more people on the paths walking and customers at the local store, the place buzzes with visible activity and participants. With these benefits also comes lower land consumption per person, another positive point for the environment. Add 600 jobs to the recipe, almost one for every two households, and a healthy mix emerges that infuses more activity within the neighbourhood.

Reducing consumption continues at the house level.

Bold step four: Passive and active solar and a district co-generation plant. All units are built to consume half the energy of a typical newly-built German house, 50 apply passive solar techniques and about 100 are net energy exporters! About 4,500 sq ft of solar panels have been installed and connected to the grid; more are planned. The co-generation plant burns wood-chip waste and is plugged into the district electrical grid, an example of waste-to-resource conversion.

Bold step five: Rain infiltration. Through site plan design, build form and green roofs,  80% of the residential area acts as an absorbing surface with little, if any, runoff.

What do these bold innovations mean? It amounts to removing about 2,000 cars from the roads, not counting side benefits. Now “environmentally sustainable” makes sense.

Note: This post first appeared in the Canadian Home Builder magazine

A Contemporary Urban Pattern