Landscape urbanism and health

Probably one of the most important emerging ideas in urban planning and the design of cities is landscape urbanism.  Arising from the landscape architecture profession, it traces its roots to a number of key thinkers including Ian McHarg.  As yet, there are too few constructed projects to evaluate how landscape urbanism projects might impact health.  As you may know, public health has pretty much adopted new urbanism principles as its own, promoting many of its features because they are associated with increased walkability, physical activity and social capital.  But new urbanism predates the reconnection of public health with urban planning and new urbanist themes were developed without health input.

Some of the underlying ideas of landscape architecture might be powerful for understanding how the built environment affects health.  For example, landscape urbanism looks at an area’s landscape as a substrate and organizing foundation upon which an urban area arises from.  It maintains that the horizontal reference is as important as the vertical dimension and that only a landscape lens of analysis can connect all the features of  modern society.  Its concern for drainage and storm water control and its respect for groundwater recharge is commendable.

One of its important texts is The Landscape Urbanism Reader, edited by Charles Waldheim.  While interesting, some of its shortcomings are a concern.  A discussion of re-imagining  Detroit, for example, does not mention its residents.  An  essay on urban highways does not include what building these highways meant for the people displaced.  Nowhere in the book is there  a discussion of health.  With little regard to history, health, or social justice, the developing movement has the potential for perpetuating current inequalities in health and the social environment. The concern is that landscape urbanism might only end up reproducing suburban Atlanta with better storm water management.

So at this moment, there can only be questions about landscape urbanism and health.  These include:

What are common idioms produced by landscape urbanism?  Once these emerge, they can be evaluated and assessed by health researchers.

What might be the best pattern of landscape and built up form for health?

How  might landscape urbanism be used to reshape already developed communities?

Can landscape urbanism be used to address inequalities and reduce racial disparities in health?

Stay tuned.

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