“Density doesn’t play the same role in getting people active as it does in the U.S.,” says Alfonzo. “In the rapidly urbanizing developing world, the relationship is not so clear…”
As an example, Alfonzo noted an interesting design pattern that cuts across different types of housing: Chinese housing complexes are “interior-focused.” Gated high-rise and mid-rise communities echo the traditional walled neighborhoods of ancient Chinese cities. “The Forbidden City is an example,” says Alfonzo.
Within modern gated complexes, she says, there’s a lot of walkability, a refuge from the 10-lane highways that roar outside the walls. “Even though outside was a barrier, inside were narrow paths, public spaces, people out and about,” she says…
In order to get past their assumptions about what makes a place walkable, Alfonzo and her team are working with Chinese planners and designers to create surveys that are sensitive to the local cultural context. They are also going to be looking beyond the health ramifications of walkability, including economic and environmental data in their studies. “One of the pushbacks we’ve gotten is that Chinese officials don’t care about health concerns,” she says. “We think the economic aspect might resonate more.”
Also interesting are the comments criticizing the article for not addressing the other factors at play in China’s rapidly increasing rate of obesity—more accessible fast food and sedentary lifestyle not related to urban structure. Most interesting is simply the fact that making a city walkable is not as simple as making more safe, pretty looking pathways in the city:
I think the available urban circulation system does matter, though; not just neighborhood, but at the city level. At ITDP, we say ‘every trip starts with a pedestrian’. The percentage of the trip that _remains_ pedestrian is tied to many factors: location and efficiency of transit, home - work locations, safety of bicycling, whether you can take an elevator to the basement and get directly into your car…whether the shared space of your housing community is a sports and exercise plaza supporting a variety of activities, or just winding paths through pretty flowers…climate…air quality…whether you have an elevator or have to walk up 9 floors…(more exercise if you leave the house; but less likely to leave)…etc., etc….!