I love the Olympics. I’m a great fan of competitive athletics, and have always appreciated significant accomplishments in sports. But there’s something different about the Olympics. The world stage; the world’s greatest athletes realizing new levels of achievement; unknown athletes accomplishing things that even they never dreamed were possible; the human interest stories associated with how the athletes managed to reach center stage, or overcome tremendous obstacles to compete for their country; the human drama of each and every competition. And the Olympics opens the door for many of us who have very little international travel experience, to countries and cultures and worlds and environments that we are not likely to ever see. It helps us to understand the remarkable diversity that is Mother Earth. There is simply nothing like the Olympics.
But, as the build-up to the Olympics grew, as reporters told us about the host country, China—the people, the culture, the lifestyles, the economy—I was struck by one thing that had nothing to do with athletic competition or the athletes, but certainly said a lot about us as a people.
As the deadline for Olympic competition approached, story after story reported on the terrible air pollution in Beijing. There were constant references to the possible need to wear masks when competing in outside venues, such as the bike road race and the marathon. Some athletes threatened to stay home. In an attempt to clear the air, the Chinese government shut down factories and took 1.5 million cars off the road a month before competition began, just to ensure that the athletes could breathe.
What are we doing to ourselves? Please understand—this isn’t a diatribe against cars. It is, though, a comment about the way we design the communities in which we live. So often we think about ways to accommodate cars and their uses, and don’t think about using that same space to create opportunities for people to interact with each other.
Increasingly, cities around the country are recognizing that cities, and neighborhoods within cities, are places for exchange—social, cultural, economic exchange. And, increasingly, cities are redesigning their landscapes to encourage that exchange. The design feature we often read about is creating bicycle-friendly cities. But that’s not the only thing. The concept of complete streets encourages looking at the many different ways we use streets, and designing the streets to complement and encourage those uses. Narrow streets provide more walkable communities, which brings neighbors and visitors into closer contact with each other; businesses capitalize on the pedestrian traffic in those commercial districts; angle parking doubles the amount of parking available, and, combined with the narrower streets, slows traffic down and creates a safer environment; bike lanes offer bicyclists with equal access to the pavement; amenities along the way, such as benches, bike racks, trees and properly designed lighting, create public spaces that encourage visitation.
And the bottom line is, we get healthier, the local economy improves, we get to know our neighborhood, and our neighbors, better, and the community becomes that much more attractive a place to live.
How do we get there? A non-motorized plan has been developed for the City of Detroit, and the City Council is preparing to discuss its support. But this should be about more than endorsing a plan. We should look for ways to integrate opportunities for pedestrian and non-motorized experiences in every development and construction plan, including every road reconstruction project. Finding ways to encourage getting closer to nature, to our environment and to our communities should be public policy, both in the city and throughout the region; and should be a requirement for all projects.
No, wait…it shouldn’t be a requirement. It should be done as a matter of course. It should be done because it’s the right thing to do. Then maybe we won’t be talking about removing cars so people can breathe. We’ll be talking about creating one of the most livable cities—and regions—in the country.