How Urban Design Can Save Lives
BY Joe Pobiner | Aug 17, 2017 | Urban



As designers and planners, we base our design concepts on a variety of inputs: site program, client preferences, industry practices, etc. But we still build parts of our cities the same way we have for nearly a century. This failure to consider our evolving needs and adapt to them may be killing us!

Urban design can help. Here are three ideas: local, neighbourhood, and citywide.

Local Idea: Place “Walk/Don’t Walk” Signs in the Sidewalk
Search for “distracted walking” on YouTube and you will get over 184,000 results. It might seem funny to watch people walk into doors or light poles, or to fall into fountains or down stairs as they talk and text. But many people across the U.S. and globally are killed because of distracted walking. How many?

In 2016, U.S. pedestrian deaths rose over 25 percent (over 6000 killed)—the highest since the 1990s. And during this same period, U.S. vehicle deaths topped 40,000 (up 6 percent)—the highest in over a decade. Distracted walking and driving were significant contributors to both statistics.

If you find that hard to believe, take a look at how people walk today. Many have their heads down, tapping at screens, or are so engrossed in conversation they are oblivious to their surroundings. This is a global problem.

Urban design can help.

Ground-level traffic lights, like this one by Australian-based design agency
Büro North, help to prevent pedestrian accidents

In April 2016, the city of Augsburg, Germany, installed red lights in the pavement at intersections so pedestrians looking down at their phones wouldn’t miss them. Other cities have embedded the familiar “Walk/Don’t Walk” sign behind a laminated glass panel in the sidewalk. This puts a warning indicator exactly where people are looking (in addition to standard signs and signals where they’ve always been). Gensler is advising some of our urban clients to consider innovations like this.

Why? Well, it isn’t realistic to legislate against “distracted walking” or to attempt to change the habits of millions of people. Designers, planners, and local officials can proactively incorporate these behaviors into new design approaches because reducing vehicular and pedestrian deaths is in everybody’s interest.

Neighbourhood Idea: Promote Naked Streets
Cities have been building street networks in largely the same manner for decades. Yet accidents and deaths continue to rise.

Urban design can help.

Shared streets—where vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians are treated equally in the “outdoor room”—have fewer accidents. Those of you who travel abroad may already be familiar with this idea.

The contemporary version of this concept was established in the Netherlands back in the 1970s as a woonerf or “living street.” Whether you call it a “home zone,” as in the U.K., a “shared space,” or a “naked street,” the concept is the same: reduce vehicle speed by sharing the public realm. Some designs reduce or eliminate curbs, signs, and even traffic signals to make drivers feel unsure of their environment, which instinctively causes them to slow down. Being able to make eye contact with pedestrians also helps.

Shared space is an urban design approach that minimises the segregation of pedestrians and vehicles. This is done by removing features such as curbs, road surface markings, traffic signs, and traffic lights. Image courtesy of David Zawila.

This is opposite of the conventional approach to street design: make streets wider and faster; create separate lanes for cars, buses, and bicycles; and put obstacles along curbs to keep pedestrians from jaywalking. Yet, pedestrian and vehicle deaths are nearing all-time highs. The conventional approach is not working.

Woonerfs and naked streets have their share of critics, but they have become common across the globe and the results speak for themselves. They work best when an array of naked streets replace a single major arterial, allowing urban traffic to diffuse naturally through the neighbourhood. Gensler is currently working with several clients to remake their streets into shared-space environments.

Citywide Idea: Stop Separating Compatible Land-Uses
Did you know that U.S. zoning is largely based on a development code established over 90 years ago? It’s true. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Euclid v. Ambler Realty (1926) remains the basis for city zoning practices that separate sensitive and intense uses (i.e., move industry away from housing). This practice is referred to as Euclidean or cumulative Zoning, and while many so-called heavier uses may no longer pose a threat (or even exist), many cities still maintain their Euclidean zoning.

Traffic engineers cite Euclidean codes as a chief cause of congestion. Origins and destinations that are further apart result in longer trips and higher traffic volumes. (Traffic congestion is also a fourth-dimensional problem, since most commuters attempt to cram onto roadways during so-called “rush hours.”) For now, auto-centric development patterns have forced us to rely on fossil fuel-based transportation rather than walking, stressing us to the point of road rage and generally contributing to diminished health.

Urban design can help.

Cities can promote mixed-use development patterns as older areas begin to redevelop, bringing trip origins and destinations closer together. They can also reduce off-street parking requirements if a business has a high walkability metric, such as


Not at all. Many of our clients’ suburban projects now seek mixed-use environments. Those old pastoral campuses are giving way to “mini-town centers,” combining office space with new residential and retail development. This is not a trend; it is a return to the way we built communities before World War II, even before the 1956 Federal Highway Act—creator of the Interstate Highway System and one of the major drivers of sprawl.

Gensler is also working with public-sector clients to rewrite comprehensive plans and development policies to create more humane and human-scale growth, including:

  • Rethinking the relationship between residential and non-residential uses, encouraging mixed-use whenever feasible;
  • Making walkability a priority, not an afterthought; and,
  • Creating a green infrastructure of parks and trails for residents, businesses, and visitors to reinforce walkability between origins and destinations.

The above suggestions are just three ways urban design can make our communities safer and healthier—there are many more. Ultimately, urban design is not about buildings. It is about creating places for people.

We must never forget that. 

This article was reprinted through the courtesy of GenslerOn. Read the original article hereTopmost image by Matt Quinn.


About the author

Joe Pobiner's picture
Joe Pobiner, FAICP, CNU-A, is a master planner and urban designer in Gensler's Dallas office. He specialises in applying responsible planning and urban design principles that strengthen the physical, natural, economic, and cultural frameworks of our rapidly urbanising planet. Contact him at