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Human-centric urban design and active mobility create liveable cities

Written by Jamie Coles

Imagine a city. What do you see? Tower blocks, perhaps, cutting through the sky. Perhaps a grid of tarmac—streets choked with the droning of car traffic. But consider the spaces between these blocks—the parks that soak up rainwater to prevent floods, shaded paths that cool the air, mitigating urban heat islands. These aren’t just gaps in the skyline; they are vibrant, democratic spaces fostering community and well-being, areas where people don’t just pass by, but can meet and live.

This might sound like a vision of the future, but for many urban areas around the world, it’s rapidly becoming a reality. From Hamburg’s streets prioritising bikes and pedestrians to Aarhus’s green corridors that connect living spaces with biodiversity, cities are shifting away from being solely utilitarian spaces to focus on the more human elements of city life. Through social innovation and co-creation, residents can be directly involved in the urban planning process, making streets more human-centric and putting people at the heart of their cities. We understand that enhancing livability means integrating green infrastructure, sustainable mobility, and spaces for social interaction directly into this process. These aren’t just nice-to-haves; they can improve the health, happiness, sustainability, and resilience of the places where we live.

Integrating green infrastructure and mobility

Over half the world’s population now lives in urbanised areas, which has led to asking questions about liveability and sustainability, taking them from academic debates and policy circles into the lived experiences of billions of people. With this shift comes a new appreciation for the role of public spaces as hubs of cultural expression and social solidarity. How we design, maintain, and develop these spaces—or allow them to be developed by those who use them—reflects our broader values and aspirations as a society.

The inclusion of parks, green roofs, community gardens, and green corridors within city plans is more than just aesthetically pleasing, they act as lungs for cities, improving air quality, reducing urban heat islands, and enhancing biodiversity. They also offer profound mental and physical health benefits, providing urban residents with necessary havens of tranquility and recreation amidst their bustling city lives.

Cities like Paris and Dordrecht are embedding landscape diversity to tackle environmental challenges like flooding and heat, while also enhancing social spaces. Green infrastructure plays a crucial role in urban water management by incorporating innovations like bioswales and rain gardens, which help manage stormwater and reduce runoff, thus preserving water quality. The Canal Road Greenway and the revitalised Bradford Beck watercourse create a multifunctional green corridor from Bradford city centre to Shipley, improving biodiversity and ecological networks, and providing quality spaces for walking, cycling, and recreation.

Hamburg, Germany

The benefits of active mobility

This shift towards greener, more liveable urban spaces is inextricably linked to the need for active infrastructure. Cities that prioritise non-motorised transport—such as walking and cycling—not only enhance public health but also foster social cohesion and reduce environmental impacts. For instance, Lille and Copenhagen have integrated extensive bike lane networks that promote safety and connectivity, transforming urban streets into vibrant social hubs that boost local economies and encourage community interactions.

The benefits of such active mobility extend beyond the social to significant environmental improvements: reducing automobile dependence cuts air pollution, alleviates traffic congestion, and mitigates urban heat island effects. Moreover, the presence of pedestrian squares, mobility hubs and bike lanes tends to increase foot traffic, benefiting local businesses and making urban centres more dynamic and accessible, with well-serviced areas seeing higher retail sales as people walking or cycling engage more with their local environment.

Integrating active mobility into urban planning significantly boosts population health. Regular physical activity, like walking or biking to work, not only reduces the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer but also improves mental health by reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Thus, active infrastructure is not merely about transportation—it is a holistic approach to public health, crucial for the development of dynamic, healthy urban communities.

Overcoming challenges to active cities

However, the transition to a more actively mobile city requires overcoming substantial barriers. Retrofitting dense, car-centric urban landscapes to support active mobility often involves considerable logistical and political challenges. It requires not only the redesigning of streets but also a cultural shift in how people view mobility and urban space. With thoughtful planning and community involvement, it is possible to create multimodal mobility hubs that serve as catalysts for healthier, more connected, and vibrant urban environments.

While active mobility infrastructures like bike lanes and pedestrian paths clearly benefit urban residents, they also play a pivotal role in enhancing urban biodiversity and ecosystem health. Cities that integrate natural elements within their urban planning not only improve human livability but also become havens for various species, contributing to ecological resilience and biodiversity.

Cities that actively work to preserve and enhance biodiversity can also bolster their economic standing. Urban areas with rich biodiversity attract more tourists and residents who value nature and green spaces, which can lead to increased property values and improved overall economic health.

Integrating nature into urban life does more than just beautify — it fundamentally transforms the urban environment into a thriving ecosystem that supports both human and natural communities. By investing in biodiversity, cities not only make themselves more livable for their human inhabitants but also ensure the sustainability of their natural environments.

The greening of cities through parks, green roofs, and vertical gardens introduces crucial habitats for local wildlife and supports urban biodiversity by connecting fragmented habitats. This is essential for species survival and for maintaining ecological balance within urban areas. The presence of diverse plant species in urban areas supports a wider range of animal species, including pollinators such as bees and butterflies, which are crucial for the pollination of both wild and cultivated plants. This biodiversity, in turn, increases the resilience of urban ecosystems, enabling them to better withstand and adapt to both anthropogenic and natural disturbances.

Breda, The Netherlands

From grey to green: a policy shift

Cities worldwide are retrofitting rigid, grey infrastructures with green solutions, such as green roofs, vertical gardens, and permeable pavements, which do more than enhance aesthetics—they address critical issues like air pollution, heat, drought and flooding. This process requires a complete overhaul of urban policy to ensure these spaces are accessible and enhance liveability, connecting different communities. Cities like Copenhagen and Barcelona exemplify this transformation by integrating bike lanes, shared-use roads and public parks into their urban planning, demonstrating that innovative, green retrofitting is not only viable but also socially and environmentally beneficial.

This approach to urban planning shows the need for policymakers, urban planners and residents alike to shift their thinking about cities from grey to green, recognising the benefits of integrating green infrastructure, active mobility, and a commitment to enhancing biodiversity. But reshaping urban policy to prioritise human and ecological well-being, and ensuring that urban spaces are accessible and equitable are substantial challenges that cities face.

Cities that embrace this holistic approach are fast becoming examples of sustainability and resilience by recognising and adapting to the varied needs of their residents, fostering environments where people can thrive in the face of modern challenges.

The benefits of such urban planning extend beyond environmental impacts to influence economic, cultural, and social realms. These green, active, and biodiverse spaces contribute to healthier, happier, and more cohesive communities, providing a sense of belonging, offering refuge from urban stress, and enhancing physical and mental well-being.

Creating livable cities is an ongoing process of transformation and adaptation, calling for collaboration among all stakeholders—urban planners, policymakers, businesses, and residents—to reimagine and reshape our urban environments into the sustainable, inclusive, and dynamic spaces we aspire to live in. By addressing these challenges head-on, we not only improve the quality of life for current residents but also ensure that future generations inherit cities capable of meeting their needs and enriching their lives.

Learn more about the work of our Active and Liveable Cities teams

Our Active and Liveable Cities teams are putting humans at the heart of urban planning. If you want to learn more about opportunities for your city, reach out to a member of our team.

Sofia Aivalioti
Innovation Consultant
Juliette Ténart
Innovation Consultant
Camilla Sandberg
Innovation Consultant
Caitlin Ball
Communications Consultant