When it comes to designing things for city living, whether it’s the infrastructure or even little details—like park benches or public washrooms, you expect they will be made with people in mind. But it turns out that’s often far from the case.
Recently, Sahra Sulaiman, the communities editor for Streetsblog L.A., shared an illuminating thread about soap dispensers in LAX bathrooms. “The worker struggling to refill soaps in the LAX bathroom said she just wished architects and designers consulted with the workers that had to maintain the spaces about whether their form would actually be functional,” she wrote in a tweet amassing 126k likes.
Soon it became clear that Sahra is not the only one frustrated by how nonfunctionally public spaces are sometimes designed. More people joined the thread to share their own observations and experiences, so dear designers and architects, please take notes!
Urban design is concerned with the arrangement, appearance and function of our suburbs, towns and cities. It is both a process and an outcome of creating localities in which people live, engage with each other, and engage with the physical place around them in the modern world.
According to the United Nations (U.N.), 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, compared with 2% at the beginning of the 19th century, 30% in 1950 and 55% in 2018. The current urbanization is represented in hard-to-believe figures. The world’s largest city, Tokyo, which had a population of roughly 37 million in 2020, is expected to be overtaken in 2028 by New Delhi, the capital of India.
But you don’t have to look at metropolises to realize how much and how fast our environment is changing. Pick just about any city, the one that you live in right now, and it will seem both familiar and new at the same time. So today designers and urban planners face incredible challenges—to make sure the public spaces, infrastructure, and resources cater to the people who live there.
There are many ways to approach urban development that promote healthy living and longevity through a variety of design practices. Areas called “Blue Zones” are one of them. Dan Buettner, the author of the concept who wrote about for National Geographic, found that these communities had lower incidents of cancer and heart disease, fewer cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, a higher percentage of the population in their 90s and 100s, and were generally happier.
According to Joe Pobiner, Planning and Urban Design expert and advisor, urban design that follows the concept of Blue Zones includes: walkable environments to reduce the need for cars; increased vertical density and mixed-use diversity to encourage walking; a mix of housing options to encourage a multi-generational population; a mix of development types beyond residential and office spaces; local gathering places, parks, and plazas; locally owned farm-to-table restaurants; community gardens and rooftop gardens, and so on.
Pobiner argues that today, walkability and access to green spaces are top selling points. “Buyers want neighborhoods that offer new architecture, land uses, and technology—areas that create ‘intelligent’ density conducive to walking and biking, and that are less costly and more sustainable,” he explains.