Monday, December 7, 2015

Can Charlotte become more walkable and bikeable? The conversation continues

AARP volunteers get ready to begin a walkability audit uptown with guest speaker Gil Penalosa of 8-80 Cities in October.  Photo: Juan Ossa
It isn’t every day in Charlotte that within five hours you hear the World Health Organization invoked in conversation about planning and livability. But as a Charlotte discussion continues about whether the city needs to purposefully shift its primary emphasis away from motorists and toward to bicycles, pedestrians and transit, the “livability” term just keeps coming up.

Monday morning, I learned that the Town of Matthews in southern Mecklenburg County is the first, and to date only, municipality in North Carolina to sign on as an AARP Age Friendly Community.

That AARP initiative, as it turns out, is an affiliate of the WHO’s Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Program, a global effort dating to 2006 to help cities prepare for both increasing urbanization and for an aging population, as the huge Baby Boom generation hits retirement age.
Michael Olender, the Charlotte-based associate state director for AARP, says he’s in conversations with the Charlotte mayor’s office about whether Charlotte should also seek to join.

What does “age-friendly community” have to do with walkability and livability? Simply this: As planners and policymakers focus on the wishes and needs of the huge Millennial generation, Olender says, not much attention is being paid to the needs of what the older generation wants. But, he says, “What Boomers want mirrors very closely what Millennials want. They want to walk. They want good public transit.”

Fast-forward a few hours. I’m at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission’s monthly work session. Planning commissioner Deb Ryan, an associate professor of urban design at UNC Charlotte, is giving a short presentation on the role of livability and public health in city planning. She pointedly did not call it “sustainability.”

“ ‘Sustainability’ means everything and nothing,” Ryan said. Instead, she talked about becoming a “livable city.”
“While you may be opposed to sustainability, you can’t be opposed to better public health,” she said.
But what about the World Health Organization? As Ryan described how cities throughout history have acted to improve the health of their residents, she showed the WHO’s definition of health: “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

“We’ve created a world where it’s much easier to drive than to walk,” Ryan said. “We’ve created neighborhoods where to get anywhere you have to drive. People have grown up with this. They think it’s normal.”

To show how transportation choices are a public health issue, Ryan pointed not only to the air pollution from auto exhaust, but to the role of physical exercise and to diseases today. In 1900 tuberculosis was the second leading cause of death in the U.S., with pneumonia (often related to TB) and influenza No. 1. By 1998 the leading cause of death was cardiovascular disease, with cancer a distant second. And research from the Activing Living Research project has found, for instance, that people who live in walkable communities are two times as likely to get enough physical activity as those who don’t.
The planning commission is an appointed advisory body that offers recommendations, not final decisions, on rezonings and planning policies. Nevertheless, Ryan urged her fellow commissioners to consider taking a stand in favor of stronger measures to move the city toward livability. “We have such a car-centric city now,” she said. “Are we stuck with what we have?”

And I’ll go out on a limb to note that not many people or neighborhoods in Charlotte can claim to have “complete physical, mental and social well-being.”  But can we do better at the way we're building the city? Absolutely