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Creating habitat for people, not cars, leads to better health and happiness

At Community Builders we spend a lot of time explaining how and what someone can do to make their community more walkable and have better growth patterns, while at the same time incorporating affordable housing so towns do not become too expensive (like my hometown) or become too car dependent (like this) … but often, we leave out the question: why are these things so important? At the heart of this work is the desire to create connections for people – and through these improved connections, better the impact of the built environment (everything from buildings to public spaces to sidewalks to streets).

This creates better habitats for people. People create community. And that’s what we’re focused on: building community.

So how do we create people-friendly places? Well, as the saying goes, first impressions are everything. And often these first impressions are burned into our minds long after we’ve gotten to know a place. It is not surprising, then, that a community with an unfriendly atmosphere for people leaves a lasting impression of unfriendliness.

How, you might ask, would a place leave a perception as an unfriendly habitat for people? It’s quite simple, really. It’s done by creating a car-dominated environment. Take, for example, Paris, France versus Los Angeles, California. Which city would you feel more comfortable strolling through, without a care, on a nice spring day? I’d happily choose Paris any day.

Habitat for people.

Habitat for people: Which situation would you rather walk into?

Sure, every town and city in America will not be Paris, and we don’t want it to be. But there are a lot of ways in which we can improve our communities to make them people-friendly, leaving a friendly impression on inhabitants and visitors alike.

The walkability of an area changes with the way your community provides habitat for people. A normal walking distance for people is ¼ mile, regardless of the atmosphere. But if it’s a friendly walking environment, like Paris, people are willing to walk ½ a mile, ¾ a mile, a mile, or more. I spent several weeks in a small town in Greece, and I walked ¾ of a mile to and from my destination every day and thought nothing of it, because it was a pleasant and intriguing path. Even the elderly people were walking longer distance through town without an issue as it was a safe place for people.

It is clear that walkability is desired by many, but its impacts are farther reaching its impact on improving growth patterns. As Kaid Benfield articulates, “For our cities and towns to function as successful people habitat, though, they must be communities where people want to live, work and play.” And with this love of place, comes health and happiness.

A recent Gallup study that asked questions directly related to the built environment found that “the more respondents felt their city was beautiful (aesthetics), felt it was clean (aesthetics and safety), and felt safe walking at night (safety), the more likely they were to report being happy. Similarly, the more they felt that publicly provided water was safe, and their city was a good place to rear and care for children, the more likely they were to be happy.”

The social aspects of walking may be a big contender as to why friendly people habitat leads to better health and happiness. As you’re out and about in your community more often, you begin to run into people you know, spend more time with friends and feel like you belong as a part of the community. This social circle becomes seared into your brain as the pattern of all the people you know and how you interact with your community.

Media piece after media piece has highlighted that walkability and a people-friendly environment leads to better health and happiness. In fact, car driving may be the singular greatest link to increased obesity rates. All the more reason to want to create places where you can leave your car behind and spend more time out walking.

To put it another way: our dispersed ways of building make car culture flourish; our compact ways make human civilization thrive. Transforming spaces that are car-dominated into places for people becomes increasing important as we see it in the context of now only improving out streetscapes, but also, in a way, healing ourselves by increasing our chances for health and happiness.

Habitat for people: Dispersed design, top, vs compact design, bottom.

A bird’s-eye view of habitat for people: Dispersed design, top, vs compact design, bottom.


Jennifer Hill is a program manager with the Sonoran Institute's Western Colorado Program focusing on urban design, placemaking, and linkages for energy planning.

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