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Source: Susanne Siepl-Coates, 785-532-1122,
Web site:
Note to editor: More information about sustainability efforts at K-State is available at
News release prepared by: Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, 785-532-6415,

Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009

At K-State's sustainability conference:

MANHATTAN -- There's a piece of fitness equipment that can help you squeeze in exercise on your way to work, to the grocery store or even to a friend's house. And if you live in a traditionally designed neighborhood, it's right outside your front door.

But sidewalks and other features that encourage utilitarian physical activities are hard to find in sprawling, suburban developments. That's why a Kansas State University professor spearheaded a study of streetscape and urban design proposals with the goal of promoting utilitarian walking and bicycling.

"It always strikes me as absurd to have to drive to the gym just to get a good workout on the treadmill or exercise bike," said Siepl-Coates, K-State professor of architecture. "To integrate exercise into our daily lives, we need to incorporate such physical activity as walking and bicycling -- even using the stairs instead of the elevator -- into our daily routines. For this to occur, access to walking and bicycling has to be convenient and enjoyable enough to make it possible for people to choose these activities instead of using their cars for their daily routines."

Siepl-Coates led the project SLIM DOWNtown: Patterns of Place-Making to Increase Walking and Bicycling. The work was supported by the Sunflower Foundation: Health Care for Kansans. More information about the project is available online at

Siepl-Coates will speak about the SLIM DOWNtown project Friday, Jan. 23, at K-State's Leading Kansas in Sustainability Conference. Her presentation will be 3-3:30 p.m. in the Cottonwood Room at the K-State Student Union.

Contemporary community designs reflect a dependence on the automobile to the detriment of people's health and the environment, Siepl-Coates said.

"Many urban and, especially, suburban streets are now laid out according to principles that were developed for the convenience and uninterrupted flow of traffic that moves between residential neighborhoods and the shopping and office districts of our decentralized cities," she said. "At the same time, vast tracts of land are being used as parking lots to store the resting vehicles."

Siepl-Coates said that an increasing number of health officials are suggesting that contemporary cities place barriers to active lifestyles through zoning regulations and street design rules that are written to create sprawl. Providing opportunities for utilitarian physical activity starts with well-maintained sidewalks, bike lanes and trails, but Siepl-Coates said it doesn't end there.

"Our communities have to be specifically designed with pedestrians and bicyclists in mind," she said.

This means placing destinations like shops, restaurants, movie theaters and government offices within easy walking and biking distance. She said there also needs to be mid- to high-density housing near these destinations, as well as the elimination of large-scale parking lots.

"They are nothing but wastelands from the pedestrian and bicyclist point of view," she said.

Getting people to use a walking and biking network is boosted by a well-considered public transportation network, Siepl-Coates said. Cities like Boulder, Colo., and Portland, Ore., have shown how such design approaches can work well, she said.

Although features that encourage people to walk or bike are more likely found in older neighborhoods, Siepl-Coates said it's possible to some degree for suburban neighborhoods to catch up.

"First and foremost, we need sidewalks on both sides of the street, and regularly planted shade trees," she said. "There has to be visual interest for the pedestrians, so one three-door garage after another is not going to offer that."

Siepl-Coates suggests that when gas prices go up again -- and stay that way -- garages could be converted into small stores, workshops or offices with windows overlooking the street. "We may have a better chance in new developments of creating an environment that encourages utilitarian physical activities," she said.

Siepl-Coates said cities should reconsider planning streets on a grid, which offers pedestrians and bicyclists more than one option to get from one place to another. She said cities also need to reintroduce alleys that will eliminate garages in front of homes and reduce curb cuts, while also setting aside land for parks, neighborhood schools and other public facilities.

"Spread-out cities and subdivisions may have seemed like a good idea at one point in time, but they are definitely a thing of the past," Siepl-Coates said.

More information about the K-State sustainability conference and conference schedule are available at