Urban Healthier Planning as a Path to a More Sustainable and Healthier Environment

Modern urban planning is based on a number of key principles. These include improving the living environment, involving and informing the public, balancing and integrating interests and the principles of expedient, reasonable and sustainable land use. As such, it is important that planning ensures an environment that has space for buildings, landscaping and technical infrastructure that consider public space.

When designing urban space, it should be kept in mind that in addition to clearly measurable indicators, the decision-maker must take into consideration the opinions of the community, traditions, established practices and the latest innovations. The COVID-19 pandemic characterising 2020 has had an impact even here. Cooperation with communities and NGOs certainly requires online support, and urban transport must allow for good individual transport connections in addition to public transport to meet everyone’s movement needs.

The fact that in our everyday activities we need to move from one place to another means that we need to carefully think about and find solutions for routes and mobility options during the planning stage.

Good mobility is one aspect that ensures the flexibility, diversity and sustainability of urban development. It is important to emphasise that everyday movement on foot or by bicycle plays an important role in our health.

Modern mobility policy brings the use of public transport and cycle paths closer to people and makes using them faster, more convenient and more accessible via uniform and smarter planning, digitalisation and smarter organisation of travel rights and ticket sales.

We are used to expressing the state of health at the level of society using indicators like life expectancy and healthy life years.

Aleksander Laane, publisher of the Terviseleht newspaper, has written:

“The factors that have the biggest impact on life expectancy and healthy life years are entirely logical: the environment, health care, our standard of living, our actual behavioural patterns, our knowledge of health-related topics like eating and drinking, balance between work and rest, our level of physical activity and our consumption of alcohol and tobacco.

Our health depends not just on us but also on our national support systems, the environment and political decisions, and even on things like public space planning.

Physical activity and sports are not part of the everyday lives of the majority of people. The reasons for this differ and are related to money, time and habits, but also urban planning. The fact that 21% of boys and 14% of girls are overweight or obese is worrying. These indicators are increasing every year. Overweight students tend to skip breakfast, are physically less active and spend more time in front of screens compared to students in the normal weight range. But have we exhausted the possibilities of children going to school by bike, on a scooter, using public transport or on foot?”

The HEAT project also aims to make the planning of foot and bicycle traffic more inclusive and to place health benefits related to cycling at the very centre of planning. The project helps to increase the professional competence of city planners and their awareness of the importance of bicycle traffic.

Another notable topic in the context of urban development is the exercise habits of children and how they are linked to their health. How do school-age children get about on a day-to-day basis?

Are children able to get to school, practice, music and dance classes by themselves or do they rely on their parents? Does public transport support their movements? Are buses clean, and do they stick to their schedules? Can they be monitored online? Are children sufficiently skilled at riding bicycles and scooters for parents to trust them in city traffic? Do children have sufficient knowledge and experience to move around in city traffic on their own? There are many issues related to guiding children’s exercise habits towards healthier (i.e. independent) mobility. Many of them can be solved by carrying out practical activities or those involving urban planning.

It is a fact that when developing space for movement, while our traditions and options are different, our objectives are essentially the same. The Urban Healthier Planning project includes many ideas aimed at promoting healthy mobility and developing relevant solutions. This includes administrative solutions for the implementation of the principles of the Finnish transport development plan for its southern and western regions, introducing light traffic chosen by Jūrmala and Stockholm and planning thematic parks for the purpose of improving light traffic skills, as well as compiling a scheme of footpaths and cycle paths planned by Tartu at the level of the comprehensive plan.

Below we will outline the activities that have been carried out by our partners and analyse their connections with Healthier Urban Planning.

Valonia: Determining the Vision of Regional Traffic Network through safe and healthy traffic system as the basement of the Southwest Regional Traffic Plan

VALONIA is the Service Centre for Sustainable Development and Energy of Southwest Finland. Valonia acts as an impartial regional advisory organization and its mission is to promote sustainable development and adaptation to global climate change in the region. Valonia is part of Regional Council of Southwest Finland. Regional council is a coordinator of regional traffic network planning committee. Other members of the committee include members from municipalities, Valonia and Center for Economic Development, Transport and Environment of Southwest Finland.

One of the tasks of the regional traffic network planning committee is to determine the vision of regional traffic network, execute lines for regional cycling and pedestrian roads and make recommendations for municipalities. For example Regional Council of Southwest Finland has published the development plan for main cycling network and quality corridors in Turku city region 2013.

Challenges of regional traffic planning has been the lack of participatory methods. Different sectors from municipalities should play an important role. Traffic is an issue which concerns all of us and especially health- and sport sectors as well educational sectors are the ones needed in the process.

Big process of updating the regional traffic system plan started in spring 2019. Regional traffic network committee is the coordinator of this process. All the measures taken in this project are related to this updating process and the goal is to get different sectors and stakeholders involved to trafficsystem planning.

First big event, stakeholder meeting and the interactive workshop at the same time, was organized in May 2019. There were proximately 60 participants all over the region and from different sectors to discuss the future trafficsystem of Southwest Finland.

After that smaller workshops have been organized and also we have developed the working methods in already existing workingroups. HEAT – calculations were tried out regionally. The results from the regional calculations were not so good though. Nevertheless we got good material from the calculations to promote cycling in the region.

One big achievement has been that of the three main goals set to the traffic system plan, one is called ”Safe and HEALTHY traffic system”. Two other goals are ”Sustainable and low emission” and ” Competetive and attractive traffic system”.

This strategic aim is remarkable. Even in the national traffic system plan the health is not mentioned in the main goals. No other region has mentioned health in their traffic system plan’s main goals either.  It is remarkable that health ideas and targets are now part of regional traffic planning strategy in Southwest Finland thanks to HEAT-project.

The work has continued to the regional traffic plan that was updated in autumn 2020. All the traffic planners from the region were invited to webinar and few workshops took place. The plan is due to be finished in autumn 2020. Then it will be approved in the board of Regional Council of Southwest Finland. The board consist the members from the municipalities of Southwest Finland.

The plan is the so-called regional umbrella plan and after the publishing, the work with the concrete measures will start. First steps will be suggestions for enhancing cycling and analysing the need of infrastructure. The plan of the next steps will be launched in a workshop in autumn already.

The results of the webinar related to regional plan were quite thin but we had good general discussion about participatory planning and hopefully that influenced to the traffic planners in the region.

Work with the traffic planners of the region on the basis of transport strategy that lies on the basis of Healthy traffic system, Sustainable and low emission and competetive and attractive traffic system give the way to plan more healthy and sustainable urban areas of this region.

Stockholm: Integrating children’s perspectives in cycle and urban planning for healthier urban communities

NGO Hökarängens stadsdelsråd (a Stockholm urban planning/neighborhood organisation) is the organisation that has worked with on our interactive workshop and digital tools in the HEAT project.

There is a park in the neighborhood of Hökarängen that is being threatened with demolition but NGO Hökarängens stadsdelsråd with the support   of Cykelfrämjandet and HEAT project are working on developing there a cycling practice park. Cykelfrämjandet  hosted a joint workshop with them on the concept of the “Cycling city and how to get there” with the park as a case example. During this workshop the issue of children’s cycling was a central theme and identified as a key component of building a cycling city. This is of course something that is very important to us at Cykelfrämjandet and also strongly relates to the HEAT project’s themes of health, mobility and participative and active urban communities.

They and another organisation (Arwidssonstiftelsen – an innovative urban planning foundation) have an idea for advocating to the city to build a children’s cycling park there to restore the park and give it new life. This park could also be used for adults learning to cycle, something that we at Cykelfrämjandet also see as very important and work with. As this cycling park is such a strong representation of the themes of the project, we are collaborating with these two organisations to discuss with the city of Stockholm the possibility for using the park as a pilot location for building a children’s cycling park. The dialogue with local municipality is going on.

Measures to promote the health of children in particular is of great importance to our society today and in the future. Physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyle are one of the major public health problems of our time, and children are no exception. Children and adolescents should be physically active for at least one hour a day according to recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO), but the proportion of children and young people who achieve this is small in Sweden: only 23 percent of 11-year-old boys and about 14 percent of 11-year-olds girls get the recommended amount of physical activity. The city-region of Farsta where the park is has lower health statistics than average for Stockholm municipality.

Active transport in the form of walking or cycling has the opportunity to contribute to children’s health, wellbeing and also performance in school. Cycling for leisure activities or recreation also has an opportunity to contribute to children’s physical and mental health. School trips by bicycle have become 48 percent fewer now than in the mid-1990s and today only 14 percent cycle to school. At the same time, the proportion of children living within walking distance (1-5 km) has increased since the 1990s and 6 out of 10 children live within 2 km of their school. One reason for the negative trend among children’s school cycling is the parents’ concerns about the risk of traffic accidents and the child’s traffic maturity.

What is a cycling practice park?

A cycling practice park is a place that is specially designed to be able to practice cycling skills, ie basic cycling maneuvers such as keeping balance, starting and braking safely, steering with one hand, determining speed and direction, looking sideways and back without turning too much, orientating yourself in relation to others, reading what others do and acting accordingly. You can also practice basic traffic rules and learn the meaning of the most important signs, as well as giving a signal at turns and stops. Once these skills are mastered the cyclist is ready to go out into traffic and practice becoming a traffic-safe cyclist.

A cycling practice park provides a safe environment for both young and adult cycling learners to practice key cycling and traffic safety skills. It can serve an important function in a community for preparing new cyclists to enter traffic confidently and independently. It can also serve as an important tool for assuring parents that their child has the necessary skills to begin cycling more independently and can be an important part of a child being able to cycle to school with their parents or on their own. As mentioned above, cycling as active mobility has many benefits for children’s wellbeing and health and is thus an important part of building healthy urban communities.

Next steps

We have already conducted a workshop with stakeholders in August where the importance of children’s cycling for healthy urban communities was identified and we have also had a meeting with the city to discuss the possibility for building a cycling practice park in the contested park in Hökarängen. As a next step we are hoping to be able to hold a workshop and survey with children in the park and from nearby schools to learn more about their perspectives on cycling and opinions about a cycling park. However we still have to receive permission from the schools and local daycare centers. Our hope is that this will serve as a pilot park for other parks in the future should it be built.

Development of the sketch project and visualization for the cycling learning area for children in Jurmala 

Creating a safe learning environment for young riders

In Jurmala city there are possibilities for kids to learn the theory and take theory exams, but  there is no safe environment for cycling practice and training under parents guidance.Requirements require good command of a bicycle, e.g. when making a turn, the cyclist should steer with one hand while making a manoeuvre. However, this task is left for riders and their parents to take care of.

 The plan is to create a cycling area that helps cyclists to master riding skills, necessary in urban environment.

  • Educational factor –imitates city obstacles, develops sense of balance and teaches how to overcome the obstacles in safe environment;
  • Fun factor – can be used as a self-challenge / friends challenge;
  • Sports factor – with full competition – can be used as an place for competitions and events;
  • Communication platform – it can be used by city council/ education department for activation purposes, likewise it can be used by State Police as a communication platform for awareness campaigns.

To tackle growing accidents statistics

  • Cycling culture is an ever-growing phenomenon in Europe; it is estimated that 52% of Latvian population is using bicycles regularly.
  • According to statistics that reflect forensic examination of fatal accidents and heavy injuries, approximately 50% of court cases result in finding cyclists guilty of the accident.

Why is it so important?

  • Total amount of bicycle accidents has increased by 78% since 2010.
  • Percentage of cyclists involved in accident has increased by 33 % since 2010.

Tartu: Planning light traffic street network for the Tartu Masterplan

Tartu`s idea is to make a plan for pedestrian and bicycle users’ streets and paths network for the whole city.

At the end of 2018 the Bicycle Strategy was made by City Government with the enthusiasts of bicycling. This work showed that for getting biking more popular among the citysens the city needs to reorganise biking possibilities in the city.

To achieve the Bicycle Strategy goals we need to get every year one procent less of car drivers and one procent more bikers.

Tartu is  an university city with a compact historical city centre, where healthy walking is also very popular. Taking care of the pedestran needs is as important as making new possibilities for bikers.

The Principles of the Strategy that were taken into account  when making plan for pedestrian and bicycle userś streets and paths network are as follows:

  • The path network for pedestrian and bicycle users must be  safe for the people and can be realised by similar plan all over the city. The pedestrian and bicycle users must be the topp priority figures in city traffic.
  • Walking and biking routes should provide safe, fast, simple, shortest, continuous and comfortable way for everyday „door to door“ motions and health motions inside the city and between the city and its suburbs. 
  • One of the priorities is binding suburbs and city with good network of pedestrian and bicycle users paths
  • There is a need of using pedestrian and bicycle paths all year round, so the maintainance of the network is of a significant importance
  • The needs of different target groups (working peole, students and pupils, parents with children, leisure time spenders, visitors of stores, cultural institutions) must be taken into account with all their needs and trait of characters.
  • The space in the sreet meant for  pedestrian and bicycle users must be unequivocal and clear for everybody. 
  • The main network of bicycle paths is meant for fast drivers in the over- city scale, heading from the suburb roads to the city centre. Between the Campuses of the Universities there must be main network, too.
  • For leisure time or sporting purposes over 5km long distances there will be planned walking and biking healthpaths network.
  • For easy and short connections  the shortcuts over railway and river -the bridges and tunnels must be planned.

During the HEAT project the meeting with the neighbourhood parishes took place and the common network of paths for pedestrian and bicycle users was mapped. This is very urgent from the point of view of the project principles as we have very low intensity of using bicycles and publik transport  in the city Tartu with its  suburbs at the moment.  The biking and walking Network plan will be ready soon and will go through open presentations and discussions. This work gives input into Tartu Masterplan as one work on city street network.