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Redistributing street space to serve more people

Redesigning the urban landscape

Redesigning the urban landscape

In Leuven, Sweco participated in a major shift from extensive car use to public transportation, walking and biking. In dialogue with the inhabitants and planners of the city council, Sweco’s experts redesigned the urban landscape to better serve its people.

Motorised vehicles, moving or parked, currently take up 50 to 70% of the public space in European cities. Several cities across Europe are exploring changes in design strategies to improve their residents’ quality of life, promoting health and well-being in the local neighbourhood.

Better designed streets offer a way to balance the needs of a diverse population and serve more people within the same space. A number of the world’s major cities have adopted similar new city planning concepts aiming at satisfying the inhabitants’ work, leisure, and shopping needs within “self-sufficient districts”, where people can get by with a minimal private use of cars. The key to this concept is creating neighbourhoods and districts where everything the inhabitants need is within only a short walking or cycling distance.

While reducing motorised vehicles enables converting parking spaces into small parks, meeting places and recreational areas, restaurant space, or other social spaces, redistributing street lanes also supports pedestrians and more healthier ways of travel and socialising. Both elements could contribute to improved air quality and an increase in physical activity, boosting our health in the streetscape.

70 %

of the European population breathes hazardous air.


deaths/year due to physical inactivity in the EU.

95 %

of the time a car might consume (social) street space.

An equal design strategy – the healthy neighbourhood

The re-thinking of cities to facilitate walkability and cycling could, in turn, inspire the creation of parks, squares and public places within neighbourhoods. This has the potential to help bridge the social inequality gap in accessing such facilities, which are not always available for everyone in a car-dependent city.

The idea of the social and healthy street means a space in which the noise, air quality, and other environmental risks are kept below a healthy maximum, in which streets become places to live rather than merely spaces to move through. –
Isabelle Putseys, Urban Design Expert at Sweco

How to increase social inclusion and cohesion in the neighbourhood?

Planning streets for people, together with motorised vehicles and muscle driven mobility, ensures access, safety, and comfort for more people. This strategy allows for a more inclusive planning and transport system because not everyone can afford a car. Daily activities would be within walking or biking distance. This would potentially even out women and men’s differing possibilities to make use of urban amenities and services. Furthermore, research has indicated that residents of walkable neighbourhoods have more social interaction and enjoy more physical activities. Social cohesion and inclusion are important to well-being. Proximity between where we live and where we work and socialize creates a stronger connection to the neighbourhood and the local environment.

Streets are so much more than a travel system, they are multifunctional urban spaces shaping peoples everyday life.

The 1-minute city

In Sweden, a local concept was launched in 2020, ”the one-minute city” which focuses on the street environment and improving conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists. Interactive kits enable councils or inhabitants to create spaces for playing, outdoor gyms, growing plants, social hubs, or other things that will bring life to the street. The project promotes the use of interactive kits that can help change how we use the city’s streets.

With the help of the kit, councils or inhabitants will be able to quickly create spaces for playing, outdoor gyms, growing plants, social hubs, or other things that will bring life to the street.

The 15-minute city

The idea behind the 15-minute city (or, rather, 15-minute neighbourhoods within the city) is that all citizens should be able to go to school, enjoy leisure activities, work and shop within walking or biking distance of their homes. Carlos Moreno, an urbanist and professor at the Sorbonne, reinvented and theorised this concept. He built a matrix with six social and urban functions: living, working, grocery shopping, education, healthcare and self-development.

The theory is closely related to a reflection on mobility and the time we need for transport, the comfort factor, and the necessary infrastructure. He concluded that the more functions that fit into the radius of a 15-minute bike-ride, the more urban well-being is improved. Recent implementations of the 15-minute city aim to cut air pollution and hours lost to commuting, improve Parisians’ quality of life and help the city achieve its plan to become carbon neutral by 2050.

The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has become very interested on the 15-minute city idea. Limiting car traffic and creating more space reserved for pedestrians and cyclists are common first measures. Other changes present in the plans for Paris include turning inaccessible roofs into open parks. Schoolyards will become open sports venues in the evenings.

The Superblocks model – focuses on local use of public space

A superblock is similar to a low traffic neighbourhood.  Restricting access to neighbourhoods for motorised traffic by blocking through traffic, removing traffic lanes, or introducing one-way traffic aim to lower the intensity and speed of traffic in the neighbourhood, challenges the dominance of cars and enhances the human dimension. Restricted access results in more intensive, local use of public space, social cohesion involving resident participation, and more opportunities for biodiversity.

Successful examples of restricted traffic schemes are the Superblocks in Barcelona, Good Move in Brussels, and the City by Foot in Stockholm. The reduced air and noise pollution in the neighbourhood enable an improvement in mental and physical wellbeing for residents. It is estimated that the health benefits of the Barcelona Superblocks could prevent almost 700 deaths each year.

It is essential to design more human-oriented streets for more informal interactions. This could be achieved through minimising physical barriers in the street to allow more movement across it, or the installation of street furniture for lingering, and the overall structure of the space.

Key takeaways

  1. Redesign streets to balance the needs of a diverse population. Plan streets that serve more people and purposes within the same space.
  2. There is a paradigm shift towards people-centered city planning. The new models aims to reclaim public space, reduce motorized transport, promote active mobility provide greening and cooling
  3. Prioritise pedestrians and cyclists in the streets to gain positive effects on health and well-being as well as business, real estate and biodiversity.
  4. Plan for proximity of urban amenities and services together with a mobility concept which facilitates a variation of modes to reach a destination within a reasonable time.