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Report: Urban Space for people on the move – the living city

Cities provide opportunities, connect people and often make everyday life more practical. But in order to fully take advantage of the great potential of our cities it is vital that we actively design our cities with the citizens’ best interests at heart. The report “Urban Space for People on the Move – The Living City” investigates how holistic city planning can be used to improve people’s well-being and make it easier to choose sustainable means of transport.

More than half of the global population spend their everyday lives in an urban environment. In the EU almost three out of four citizens live in cities. Cities are also the backdrop to a large part of a country’s social and economic activity, representing hope for a better future and reminding us of our cultural heritage.

A city should therefore be planned with respect to the everyday life that takes place there and, in order to achieve a more just and sustainable urban development, it is essential that the city connects us to our individual and collective identity. Good connections enhance choice, support social cohesion, make places vibrant and safe, and facilitate human interaction. Quality urban design considers how transport infrastructure and services can connect and support sustainable neighbourhoods and cities. Places with good connections between activities and careful placement of facilities benefit from reduced travel times and less environmental impact. Residents and visitors can navigate easily in an urban environment where physical layouts and activity patterns are easily understood.

The transformation of travel

For the past 70 years, cities around the world have been designed from the car’s perspective. To satisfy the needs of a car-dependent population, the form of the European city has transformed over time from the walkable, people-friendly traditional city into a place where the streets have be­come “spaces for cars” and public urban spaces “spaces for parking”, ignoring their significance as spaces for interaction, diversity and exchange. While car transport provides flexibility, it also makes urban life less effective by causing traffic con­gestion, inefficient use of space, increased distances between services, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and loss of time. This development has resulted in the substitution of “access-by-proximity” with “access-by–movement”. The upscaling and centralisation of many specialised urban public and commercial functions has contributed to the rapid expansion of urban sprawl and has further increased car dependency.

People’s choice of transportation is related to the quality of urban space. If urban spaces are desig­ned from the people’s perspective, they create not only a deeper sense of place and comfort, but also tend to promote the choice of more sustainable means of transportation.

The two most sustainable ways to move around the city are cycling and walking, which also seem to have a positive impact on how we feel. Several studies have shown that people who choose an active way to commute evaluate their lives as more satisfactory than those who choose to travel by car.

Similar effects have also been found when comparing car travel with public transport. Public transport users reported higher “life satisfaction over time” than car users. One explanation is that public transport often includes active elements, such as walking back and forth to the bus stop.

Planning better cities

Through holistic city planning we can promote sustainable modes of travel, facilitate interactions and improve quality of life in urban areas. After studying examples of successful city planning around the world we can conclude that:

  • Taking a holistic approach to modality is key to helping inhabitants and visitors feel positively about their sustainable travel options. Attractive urban spaces that are designed with great care and from a human perspective improve people’s well-being and make it easier to choose sustainable means of transport.
  • Urban nodes, with heavy travel flows, are very important spaces and require special care to make it easy for people to make a sustainable choice. By creating a good accessible distribution of well-designed urban nodes within the city and by designing transport nodes as places for public services, leisure, shopping, meetings, culture and all kinds of social exchange, they become more than dull industrial transport facilities.
  • In order for the transport system as a whole to work well, attention must be paid to the overall structure and the urban links connecting the nodes. The perception of places as being “closer” or “further away” is highly dependent on the design of these links.
  • Holistic urban planning requires the involvement of citizens, disciplines and other stakeholders. Proven methods support planners in achieving goals for sustainable city development:

    – Placemaking is an approach to urban planning that seeks to strengthen the connections between people and places, with community-based participation and stakeholder ownership of the process and outcomes at its core.

    – SymbioCity supports the integration of perspectives from different disciplines regarding technical and policy aspects of sustainable urban development.

  • A key to success is the continuous development of city planners’ expertise and capacity to adopt new methodologies and to prioritise broad participation of citizens and disciplines in their daily planning work.

Report: Urban Space for people on the move – the living city

About the authors

Mathias Ahlgren is a senior chief landscape architect and urban planner with 20 years’ experience in leading urban planning and landscape projects with synergies in the urban systems. He is specialised in sustainable multidisciplinary planning and design, urban integrated transport solutions and sustainable infrastructure. Mathias has extensive experience in early strategic planning and processes in a range of countries. His work spans comprehensive planning schemes to the detail design process, with integrated planning focused on public spaces, people’s daily lives, and urban qualities. He works at the interface of Smart City solutions, the citizen perspective and inclusive processes.


Nigel Robson is a development planning expert with over 25 years’ experience providing transport and traffic planning advice on major urban development and masterplan projects. He has extensive experience across the commercial, residential, retail and leisure sectors and has led the transport planning input to many successful schemes requiring client representation at the highest level, including as an expert witness at Public Inquiry and in the Lands Tribunal, Upper Chamber.

Rik Houthaeve holds a Ph.D. in Science. He is an expert in strategic urban and regional development and mobility planning, with more than 30 years’ experience. In planning processes, he is strongly commitment to inclusive integrated methods and deliberative and participative design. Rik is a visiting professor at the University of Leuven – KU Leuven – Faculty of Architecture.

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