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The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being (and not merely the absence of disease). Urban streets provide the platform for everyday experiences and must, therefore, be designed to support human health and well-being for all people.
Traffic Fatality and Injury
In addition to the 1.2 million people who die, another 20–50 million people are seriously injured each year as a result of road traffic crashes. Young adults aged between 15 and 44 years account for 59% of global road traffic deaths.1
Outdoor air pollutants are a major public health concern, causing respiratory and other diseases. An estimated 3.7 million deaths worldwide in 2012 were caused by air pollution and 88% of these deaths were in low- and middle-income countries.2 Policies and investments in streets that support cleaner, low emission transportation choices such as collective transit, walking, and cycling can assist in reducing outdoor air pollution.
Insufficient physical activity is one of the ten leading risk factors for death across all income scales worldwide and a key risk factor in non-communicable diseases. With more than 80% of the world’s adolescent population insufficiently physically active,3 streets must offer safe and accessible sidewalks and cycle facilities to promote physically active modes of transportation.
Water stagnation exposes people to water-borne and vector-borne diseases. Streets designed for easy maintenance and proper water flow management reduce the chances for water stagnation, thereby reducing the risk of water-borne diseases.
Access to Nature
Streets are public spaces that people use on a daily basis. Providing access to nature with street trees and landscaping can reduce blood pressure and improve emotional and psychological health.4
Street noise is one of the primary sources of noise pollution, contributing to a number of health problems, such as sleep disturbance, cardiovascular issues, poor work and school performance, and hearing impairment. Allowing large vehicles and heavy traffic on residential streets may cause sleep disturbances. Street design can reduce speed while policies can reduce horn use, minimizing noise pollution, and reducing discomfort for other street users.
Human experience of neighborhoods and cities is shaped by streets. The ease at which people move from one place to another, access services, enjoy their surroundings, and feel safe impacts their mental health and comfort.
The most intimate experience of a street comes from walking on the sidewalk, suggesting that the success of the street should be measured at human eye level, and at walking speed. Pedestrians experience the street with all their senses. Smells, sounds, textures, and visual interest shape the comfort of the space. Young children, whose senses are not yet fully developed, will use and experience a street differently. As people age, their hearing, vision, and mobility may become impaired, changing the way they receive signals from their environment and their ability to use the street. Consider how textures, materials, sounds, and visual clues can create a safe and enticing environment for people of all abilities.
Safety and Access
People feel more comfortable using safe streets. Urban streets must be designed for slower traffic speeds and include sidewalks, lighting, furniture, and shade to support a safe experience. Streets provide links to critical services such as health care and education and require safe, secure, and accessible routes. Street design should provide spaces that enhance urban safety and support crime prevention.
Well-designed streets connect people with their communities, providing opportunities to meet people, see friends, and feel socially connected. Streets with reduced traffic volumes and speeds extend the territory of the private spaces that line the street, increasing the opportunity for social interaction.
Empowerment and Social Inclusion
Streets should be spaces of empowerment for the vulnerable. For people burdened with poverty or living in cultures that face social inclusion challenges, streets should provide an inclusive place for diverse users.5
As the central network of public space in a city, streets are often places for political or cultural expression, demonstrated through parades, marches, and celebrations. Streets should be designed as neutral ground to support such events.
Spiritual and Personal Meaning
As sites for daily activities and rituals, streets hold memories of places and events. Streets can represent the character of a specific place and have personal meaning to people. Street design should support safe, positive, and enjoyable experiences.
1. New York City Department of Transportation, NYC Pedestrian Safety Study & Action Plan (New York, NY: NYCDOT, 2010), accessed June 7, 2016, http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/nyc_ped_safety_study_action_plan.pdf. Transportation for London, Safe Streets for London (London: TFL, 2014), accessed June 7, 2016, https://tfl.gov.uk/corporate/safety-and-security/road-safety/safe-streets-for-london. February 2014
2. I. York, The Manual for Streets: Evidence and Research (Crowthorne: Transport Research Laboratory, 2007).
3. World Health Organization, Road Traffic Injuries (Geneva: WHO, 2015).
4. World Health Organization, “Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health.” Fact sheet No. 313, World Health Agency, March 2014.
5. World Health Organization, “Physical Activity.” Fact sheet No. 385, World Health Agency, January 2015.
Adapted by Global Street Design Guide published by Island Press.
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