Which way now? Healthy options for our streets and cities – Sharing speed, street space and liveable futures

According to the UN, about 70 percent of the global population – 7 billion people – are expected to live in cities by 2050. If the way we design our cities does not change as the number of inhabitants increases, health issues will continue to grow. In this report, we investigate key design strategies to remodel streets as health incubators and consider restructured mobility frameworks as a factor vital in the transition to healthier and sustainable cities

Sharing speed

Shared speed means placing the same speed or more similar speed limits on different forms of transport in urban settings. Pedestrians and cyclists have, for natural reasons, a limited ability to increase speed, whereas motorised transport offers a much greater span. This would pose less of a problem if speed did not impact land use and planning.

By adapting speed levels through design and technology in urban streets, not only will we get lower emissions, fewer accidents, and less stress. Urban planners and architects will also be forced to think in new ways: to think proximity, as in the “15-minute city”, to think a redesigned street space for more social encounters and engagement, and to enable all citizens to feel confident in using the space.

How to transform our streets into an incubator of health and well-being?

How to transform our streets into an incubator of health and well-being?

Density and multifunctional neighbourhoods

A second strategy in the pursuit of healthier streets relates to the distance to daily activities such as school, work, and leisure. The distribution of functions across an urban area determines the dominant travel mode.

The 15-minute city

The idea behind the 15-minute city (or, rather, 15-minute neighbourhoods within the city) is that all citizens should be able to go to school, enjoy leisure activities, work and shop within walking or biking distance of their homes.

Carlos Moreno, an urbanist and professor at the Sorbonne, reinvented and theorised this concept. He built a matrix with six social and urban functions: living, working, grocery shopping, education, healthcare and self-development.

“There are six things that make an urbanite happy: dwelling in dignity, working in proper conditions, [being able to gain] provisions, well-being, education and leisure. To improve quality of life, you need to reduce the access radius for these functions.”
Carlos Moreno, urbanist and professor at the Sorbonne, Paris

The theory is closely related to a reflection on mobility and the time we need for transport, the comfort factor, and the necessary infrastructure. He concluded that the more functions that fit into the radius of a 15-minute bike-ride, the more urban well-being is improved.

Recent implementations of the 15-minute city aim to cut air pollution and hours lost to commuting, improve Parisians’ quality of life and help the city achieve its plan to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Shared speed in the 15-minute city

While density greatly supports walkability, a dense urban area and the integration of businesses into the residential tissue face some challenges in terms of privacy, noise, safety, daylight, and access to blue and green open spaces. This implies good architectural design and creative solutions in which dense urban cities all over the world have been experimenting: kindergartens with play spaces on the roof, multifunctional buildings with flexible walls and similar solutions. Adding more functions to one place increases the density of activity in the neighbourhood.

Redistrbuted street space for increased social interaction, 2021. Illustration by Tom Uyttendaele, Sweco

Redistributed street space for increased social interaction, 2021. Illustration by Tom Uyttendaele, Sweco

Adding more functions to one place increases the density of activity in the neighbourhood. Inaccessible roofs can turn into open parks, and schoolyards can become open sports venues in the evenings. Multifunctional and multi-temporal uses increase spatial efficiency.

“A core strategy of streets as health incubators entails treating the city’s various modes of transportation, from driving to walking, as more equal, a design strategy that we call shared speed,”
David Lindelöw, transport planner at Sweco in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The one-minute city

In Sweden, a local concept was launched in 2020, ”the one-minute city” which focuses on the street environment and improving conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists. Interactive kits enable councils or inhabitants to create spaces for playing, outdoor gyms, growing plants, social hubs, or other things that will bring life to the street.

Sweco Architects in Sweden. Photographer: Steffan Sundström. In Sweden, a local concept was launched in 2020, ”the one-minute city” which focuses on the street environment and improving conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists. Interactive kits enable councils or inhabitants to create spaces for playing, outdoor gyms, growing plants, social hubs, or other things that will bring life to the street.

The 1-minute city in Götgatan, Sweden, by Sweco Architects. Photographer: Steffan Sundström.

Cities built for certain speeds

Speed is just as often something forced upon us, meaning that the structure of cities and the labour market compel us to use quick, motorised travel over long distances.

This report argues that distributing the speed of movement in a city provides us with an instrument to achieve several goals. The traffic safety benefits of shared speed or low speed areas and streets are well established. Increased mean car speed translates into increased accident risk and severity, especially for pedestrians and cyclists. Mean speeds around 20 km/h are relatively safe and feasible for several transport modes.

Moreover, the reduction of serious crashes due to lower speed has a significant positive impact on the economy. Furthermore, this report suggests that travel speed relates to a number of other factors that constitute a socially sustainable and healthy city.

However, both fast and slow travel have a role to play in future cities. High-capacity transport, such as the underground, bike highways or regional trains, is an integral part of sustainable urban planning.

Shared speed refers to a shared distribution of speed rather than a particular level.

Bike Highway, BUUR part of Sweco Belgium.

Bike Highway, BUUR part of Sweco Belgium.

Social inclusion and cohesion through walkability and cycling

The re-thinking of cities to facilitate walkability and cycling could, in turn, inspire the creation of parks, squares and public places within neighbourhoods. This has the potential to help bridge the social inequality gap in accessing such facilities, which are not always available for everyone in a car-dependent city.

This allows for a more just planning and transport system because not everyone can afford a car. Daily activities would be within walking or biking distance. This would potentially even out women and men’s differing possibilities to make use of urban amenities and services. Furthermore, research has indicated that residents of walkable neighbourhoods have more social interaction and enjoy more physical activities.

Social cohesion and inclusion are important to well-being. Proximity between where we live and where we work and socialize creates a stronger connection to the neighbourhood and the local environment.

Redistributing street space

The street design in Antwerp (Keyserlei) by Manuel de Solà-Morales together with Sweco. The redesign of the street profile allowed for reverse distribution, in which 70% of the space was reserved for pedestrians, trees and cafes.

“The idea of the street as an incubator of health and well-being means a space in which the noise, air quality, and other environmental risks are kept below a healthy maximum, in which streets become places to live rather than merely spaces to move through.”
Isabelle Putseys, urban design expert, Sweco.

Planning for proximity and density

A second strategy in the pursuit of healthier streets is related to the distance to daily activities such as school, work, and leisure. The distribution of functions across an urban area determines the dominant travel mode. Cities are planning to reduce commutes and to integrate and provide a mix of functions on the neighbourhood level. Consequently, they are planning to once again become a collection of neighbourhoods and move away from the functional zoning principles of the Modernist planning ideal, which prized the car as the optimal transport mode.

Avoiding commutes

Urban planning that designs for shorter trips or reduced travel distances can complement speed reduction measures. When the distances to daily activities are shorter, the speed of travel becomes less important and the choices for arriving at a destination more numerous.

Avoiding long commutes by choosing local activities promotes a transition towards less car ownership, more shared mobility, and more options for green spaces in the streetscapes. As a consequence, air pollution in the form of NOx and particle matter can be diminished.

Kirschgelände, Munchen by Tovatt Architects, part of Sweco. The transit-oriented development on the outskirts of Munich, named “City of Wood”, provides high performance in sustainable living. Immediate access to the S-Bahn stimulates reduced car use and ownership.

Kirschgelände, Munchen by Tovatt Architects, part of Sweco. The transit-oriented development on the outskirts of Munich, named “City of Wood”, provides high performance in sustainable living. Immediate access to the S-Bahn stimulates reduced car use and ownership.

Shared mobility as a solution to free up public space

In recent years, urban dwellers have seen the advent of several new vehicles and related mobility-based services. This includes bike-share systems, electric scooters, and food delivery by bike. Added to this, autonomous vehicles are soon joining the roads. Despite their unique, innovative characteristics, they often share road space with traditional modes of transport, pedestrians, bicycles and motorised vehicles. This potent mix of diverse users, speed levels and technologies has caused both excitement and concern among citizens and planners alike. This increased complexity in transport and urban planning demands further insight and tools at different scales and a cross-cutting approach if we are to achieve a liveable city.

Restricted access

Restricting access to neighbourhoods for motorised traffic by blocking through traffic, removing traffic lanes, or introducing one-way traffic aim to lower the intensity and speed of traffic in the neighbourhood, challenges the dominance of cars and enhances the human dimension. Restricted access results in more intensive, local use of public space, social cohesion involving resident participation, and more opportunities for biodiversity. Successful examples of restricted traffic schemes are the Superblocks in Barcelona, Good Move in Brussels, and the City by Foot in Stockholm.

The Super Blocks model

The Super Blocks model

Lessons from the pandemic

The recent pandemic highlights the flaws in streetscape design. It has temporarily changed the way people view and use the city. In many cities, the measures and restrictions have forced inhabitants to explore their nearby environments. This experience has raised new questions in the debate on planning for proximity and ensuring that all citizens can travel to school, enjoy leisure activities, work and shop within walking or biking distance of their home.

Redistributing street space to serve more people and purposes

“Streets are so much more than a travel system, they are multifunctional urban spaces shaping peoples everyday life.”
Lars Jørgensen, urban designer at Sweco

Motorised vehicles, moving or parked, currently take up 50 to 70% of the public space in European cities. While reduced car ownership allows for converting parking spaces into small parks, restaurant space, or other social spaces, redistributing street lanes also supports more muscle-powered mobility. Both elements could contribute to improved air quality and an increase in physical activity, boosting our health in the streetscape.

Street design in Torggata,Oslo, with the aim of providing welcoming space. The lowered kerbstone and the chicanes create a blurring or integration between mobility and informal meeting. Oslo, Norway, Sweco

Before and after pictures of redesigning public space for all. Street design in Torggata, Oslo, with the aim of providing welcoming space, by Sweco Norway. Photo: Anders Haakonsen (left), Amund Johne (right).

Addressing diversity in society

Redesigning streets offers a way to balance the needs of a diverse population. Planning streets for shared speed mobility ensures access, safety, and comfort for more people. Better designed streets serve more people within the same space.

It is essential to design more human-oriented streets for more informal interactions. This could be achieved through minimising physical barriers in the street to allow more movement across it, or the installation of street furniture for lingering, and the overall structure of the space. In this context, shared speed could help ensure that mobility takes place close to walking or cycling speed.

Enagaging citizens

The strategy to upgrade streets so they can become health incubators will also require the engagement of citizens.

Citizen engagement and citizen science

The strategy to upgrade streets so they can become health incubators will also require the engagement of citizens.

By involving citizens and raising awareness of the way we use and move around in the city, we can encourage them to play an active part in the shift to more liveable neighbourhoods. Citizen science enables researchers to utilise the inhabitants’ resources or information while serving as a catalyst for behavioural change and building social capital among people in the neighbourhoods.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

If the way we design our cities does not change as the number of inhabitants increases, health issues will continue to grow, and we will end up with cities that few people will want to live in. In short, we need to rethink our cities.

Expert recommendations

  1. Acknowledge shared speed as a viable method for supporting attractive urban design and developing cities that promote health and well-being.
  2. Plan for proximity of urban amenities and services together with a mobility concept which facilitates a variation of modes to reach a destination within a reasonable time.
  3. Redesign streets to balance the needs of a diverse population. Plan for low-speed mobility and streets that serve more people within the same space.
  4. Prioritise pedestrians and cyclists in the streets to gain positive effects on health and well-being as well as business, real estate and biodiversity.
  5. Involve citizens, as they can play an active part in the shift to healthier and more liveable neighbourhoods.

Download the full report for more details on citizen science and to learn about “Tactical urbanism”, the “one-minute city” and Car-free days as well as how the redistributed street model helps to boost business and increase connectivity through ecological networks.

In this report we have tried to provide solutions to a multifaceted problem faced by our urban communities. Challenges certainly remain, but these suggestions hope to provide pathways to a healthier, more inclusive and more sustainable urban environment.

About the authors

David Lindelöw

David Lindelöw is a transport planner at Sweco in Gothenburg, Sweden. He holds a PhD in Transport Planning from Lund University. Since joining Sweco in 2016, David has been working with walkability, urban planning, new mobility solutions and the connection between land use and travel behaviour. David is interested in how active travel can become a natural part of the urban realm and everyday life.

Lars Jorgensen

Lars Jørgensen is an urban designer at Sweco in Oslo, Norway. He has a master’s degree in urban design from Aalborg University in Denmark. Lars is working with social sustainability through mobility strategies and space design. Lars is especially interested in democratic urban planning both through planning for equity between users of space and through public participation.

Isabelle Putseys

Isabelle Putseys has a background in architecture and urbanism. She’s an urban design expert in health and climate in blue-green networks. She completed her PhD in engineering on integrated design approaches and water-related practices. As an urban planner she gained a broad experience in urban liveability, landscape and water systems, and nature-based solutions within climate change strategies. As a project lead, she worked at several levels in the public sector (Eurometropolis, Flemish community and municipal levels); she joined in public debates and supported administrations in their search for climate neutrality.

Expert contributors

  • Vania Khairallah – Expert in sustainable mobility and Urban Insight spokesperson for Sweco SE.
  • Jeroen Bastiaens – Expert in urban planning and mobility, Sweco BE.
  • Erik Vandermeersch – Expert in traffic planning, Sweco BE.
  • Patrick Roothaer – Senior spatial planner, expert in large-scale infrastructure and complex projects, Sweco.
  • Wibo De Graaf – Expert in urban planning, Sweco NL.
  • Maarten Van Der Leck – Sweco NL – Expert in sustainable mobility, Sweco NL.

Special thanks to

  • Jean Ryan, Postdoctoral fellow, Transport and Roads, Lund University.
  • Lena Winslott Hiselius, Professor, Lund University.
  • Per Olof Lindsten and Jill Bederoff – Journalists.
  • Asma Sofla, Karl Hedin and Maxime Verdonck – Researchers, trainees at Urban Insight.
  • Emma Sterner Oderstedt and Antony Riley – Project Manager and Editor.