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How Rethinking Urban Design Can Create Healthier Communities
Active Design in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Convenient, wide, and clearly marked, this crosswalk in São Paulo, Brazil encourages walking by design. Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil.

Nossa Cidade (“Our City”), from TheCityFix Brasil, explores critical questions for building more sustainable cities. Every month features a new theme. Leaning on the expertise of researchers and specialists in WRI’s sustainable urban mobility team in Brazil, the series will feature in depth articles on urban planning, sustainable mobility, gender, resilience, and other key themes for sparking more sustainable development in our cities.


Flipping on the TV might seem like an innocent way to unwind after a hard day of work. But for the first time in history, a sedentary lifestyle is reducing the average life expectancy in Brazil by five years. Already, 48.7 percent of the adult population is sedentary. This number is projected to increase, causing physical, social, and economic damage to society.

While encouraging healthy habits is essential to combatting this trend, urban design also plays an important role in fostering healthy lifestyles. Ultimately, how we design our cities influences how people live in them.

The concept of active design is key to understanding how cities can improve public health. Championed by New York City’s Center for Active Design, active design prioritizes walking and cycling, and mass transport like buses, in the built environment. In Brazil, Cidade Ativa (active city) promotes changes to the urban environment that encourage a more active and healthy lifestyle.

So how are these ideas implemented on the ground? New York City recently produced “Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design” , which contains several recommendations that may be used by cities and planners for designing urban spaces that foster active transport.

Below, we explore some of these tactics that urban planners can use to get people off their car seats and onto the sidewalk:

Mixed Use Neighborhoods Are More Vibrant

A diverse mix of land uses—homes offices, schools, shops, and cultural sites—in one neighborhood encourages more people to walk. A diverse mix of land uses and buildings can make for an interesting walk, and can stimulate people to live near their offices. Devoting space for social and economic activities can fill a neighborhood with people and life.

  • Residential areas should be located near parks, squares, and recreational areas.  Connected streets are conducive to walking. Quality public spaces within 10 minutes of home also encourage neighborhood walking.
  • Neighborhoods with grocery stores and markets close to home and work are associated with healthier diets and lower rates of obesity, according to several studies. In contrast, areas with fast-food restaurants tend to have higher rates of obesity.

Street Design Influences Transit Behavior

  • The Center for Active Design found an inverse relationship between obesity and urban density along transit stops and bus lanes. Residents who use public transportation tend to walk more, which is correlated with lower rates of obesity.
  • Public transport should be located on connected streets. This expands access to pedestrians and makes public transport more convenient.
  • Quality transit stations:  protection from sun and rain, comfortable seating, and wide sidewalks all make public transport and public spaces more friendly and accessible.
  • Parking spots can have a major impact on walkability. Planners should consider the effect that parking spaces can have on an individual’s decision to walk, bike, or use public transit. Generally, when parking is available, drivers will use it. The greater the supply of parking, the less motivation that people have to be active.

Public Spaces for Active Communities

  • Plan public spaces on a large scale. When people have greater access to parks, physical activity levels tend to be higher.
  • When routes are visible and safe in parks and public spaces, pedestrians and cyclists are more likely to use them.
  • Squares and parks should haves drinking fountains, playgrounds for children, bike paths, sports fields, or other types of public facilities.
  • Planners should also consider the cultural preferences of the local population. Public space should be designed for all ages equitably. Placing facilities for physical activity of children and adults in the same place means that everyone can participate in public spaces equitably.
  • Cities should establish partnerships with organizations and volunteers to maintenance public spaces. When volunteers and organizations commit to taking care of public spaces, they become meaningful to those communities.

People who walk and bike regularly are better off physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually, and financially. The city can be a powerful facilitator of physical activity, encouraging people to walk, bike, and take public transit by design. Rethinking the role of urban design in transport decision making not only can help cities become more efficient and improve quality of life, but can also make communities healthier.

This article was originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil.

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