Archive for the ‘Building American Public Health’ Category

Children in cities

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

For my follow up to my book on the history of using architecture and health to promote health (see Building American Public Health: Urban Planning, Architecture and the Quest for Better Public Health in the United States), I am working on a book on the history of children in US cities. It’s going to interesting. For one thing, children are very sensitive to the envieprinmental conditions around them.  Changes in social policy as well as health and environmental problems can have a profound impact on them. From th rise of US cities in the nineteenth century to changes in welfare policy in the twentieth, children have seen important changes in their living conditions

Some of the topics I intend to address include: child labor, infectious diseases, schools and segregation, environmental diseases, and obesity and the issue of whether children should live in cities at all. I am deep into the research and writing of this book.

From Building American Public Health: Latino Demographics

Monday, November 26th, 2012

I try to avoid any political commentary, though that is not easy.  But given the election, I thought this selection from my book:  Building American Public Health:  Urban Planning, Architecture, and the Quest for Better Public Health in the United States, was relevant.



The 2010 Census revealed continuing shifts in the population of the United States.  One of the most important of these is the tremendous growth of the Hispanic population.1 What in 1990 was a modest 8.9% of the population concentrated in a few states, now represents 16% of the country’s population and almost every state has important numbers of Latinos.2 Several states are already a majority minority. Others are moving rapidly in that direction and by mid century, non-Hispanic Whites may no longer be a majority in this country.3

There are potential benefits to this population growth.  This group has represented the bulk of growth in this country in the past twenty years and some states and cities would have lost population if not for Latino immigration and high birth rates.4 Hispanics fill vital roles in this country including providing much of the workforce for the construction, manufacturing and service industries.  There is also what is known as the Hispanic paradox, Latinos, or at least those of Mexican ancestry, tend to have lower death rates than non-Latinos.5 In general, this is a healthy population, even including the native born (immigrants tend to have better health because healthy people are more likely to emigrate).

But as Hispanics assimilate, and evidence suggests that Latinos are assimilating at a faster rate than did previous migrants to the United States,6 their health status declines towards that of the non-Hispanic, native-born population.  Already, there are serious concerns with obesity, diabetes, physical activity and other issues in the Latino community.7  This may make efforts to address health problem through modifications to the built environment issues an imperative.8 Latinos are less likely to own cars and more likely to take public transportation, attributes that should be encouraged given how this lowers environmental impacts.9


Press Release for Building American Public Health

Monday, September 17th, 2012













CONTACT:  Lindsey Ruthen, Associate Publicist



Building American Public Health

Urban Planning, Architecture, and the Quest for Better Health in the United States

By Russell Lopez


“A rich and readable history of urban planning, public health, and the links between them.”

—Howard Frumkin, dean, School of Public Health, University of Washington


From the industrial revolution to the rise of the modern obesity epidemic, many generations of American reformers and advocates have sought to protect and promote health by manipulating how we build housing and neighborhoods. Each era’s conceptualization of a healthy environment is documented in its street layouts and architecture.


In BUILDING AMERICAN PUBLIC HEALTH: Urban Planning, Architecture, and the Quest for Better Health in the United States [Palgrave Macmillan/ Pub Date: May 22, 2012/ ISBN: 978-1-137-00243-3/ $90.00-Hardcover], author Russell Lopez provides a history of how urban planning and architecture have been deployed to improve public health in the United Sates. He highlights the work of tenement reformers, zoning advocates, Modernist architects, New Urbanists, and members of the new built environment and health movement, among others, to improve the health and social conditions of their time by modifying the environment around them.


BUILDING AMERICAN PUBLIC HEALTH begins in the nineteenth century, when problems in rapidly urbanizing cities threatened to overwhelm cities, and then traces the development and impact of reform movements up through the First World War, including discussions of model tenements, the ‘city beautiful’ movement, tenement laws, and zoning and building codes. Midcentury design movements, such as new efforts to plan suburbs and Modernism, along with outlines of the impacts of public housing, highway building, and urban renewal, are the focus of the middle chapters of the book. The final third examines the revival of cities and the reconnection of public health with urban planning that occurred as the twentieth century ended.


Russell Lopez received his Master of City and Regional Planning degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and a Doctorate in Environmental Health from Boston University. His research interests include urban environmental health and the role of the cities, neighborhoods, and the social and built environment in public health outcomes and health disparities. He has taught courses related to the built environment and urban health at Northeastern University and Boston University.

Building American Public Health: A Plea for Understanding

Monday, July 30th, 2012

The conclusion:

Urbanism in the United States is alive and thriving. New immigrants have brought a burst of color and energy to once dull communities, and it appears that many of the scars caused by mid-twentieth-century urban renewal are at last healing. Therefore, the future, as much as we can tell, looks bright. The current wave of urban development, which came to an end as recession took hold, has left its mark on US cities, and future observers looking back at our era, just as we have looked back at other times, will be able to identify the goals, concerns, and aspirations of our time through our architecture. They will be able to reconstruct our ideologies, values, and assumptions by examining our buildings, blocks, and metropolitan areas; and they will judge us, just as we have judged those who came before us. May they be sympathetic to our shortcomings. Let us hope that we will impress the people of the future and inspire future generations to take action as much as those who have come before us have impressed the people of our time and have inspired us to reach toward a more healthful tomorrow.

Building American Public Health: How to look at the built environment

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

From the ending of Chapter 1:

There is a basic contradiction imbedded in any book on health and the built environment. A thousand words cannot adequately describe the tranquility of a neatly landscaped postwar suburb or the dynamism of a downtown office district at 8:45 on a weekday morning. An even greater challenge is to describe a past that no longer exists except in our collective memories and prejudices. What were early reformers trying to accomplish? What would we have done given their available tools and technologies? Would we have produced any greater health improvements? This book asks readers to understand other worlds, some long gone, some contemporary but still unexamined. The only way to experience a book on the built environment is also the only way to experience a city, suburb, or rural area: be a part of one’s surroundings. In that way, one can reconsider one’s own values, ideas, and assumptions. It is hoped, therefore, that this book will prompt people to rethink the environment around them.


Increase in scholarly articles on the built environment and health

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Here is a piece from my book, Building American Public Health.  It tracks the increase in the number of scholarly articles on the built environment and health.

One way to track the growth in research on a health topic is through charting the number of citations in Medline, the National Library of Medicine’s online database of peer-reviewed journal articles. The term “built environment” had nine citations older than 1991, 14 between 1991 and 1995, 21 between 1996 and 2000, and 161 in 2010 alone. The terms “walkability” and “street connectivity” first appear in Medline in 2003, “food desert” in 2005. These numbers should be interpreted with caution because many older journals may not have been added to the database and there has been an increase in the total number of articles published on all topics over the years, but the data still most likely reflect a large-scale increase in the amount of research on the built environment.


Changes in how the “housing problem” has been conceptualized

Monday, April 16th, 2012

One of the more interesting things I learned in writing my book, Building American Public Health, was the various and changing ways that housing problems have been conceptualized. How the housing problem is understood translated very closely into the policies that were adapted in a given era. So as the conceptualization of what was the nature of housing problems changed, so did public policies aimed to promote safe, healthy (and eventually affordable) housing.

Like most of modern public health and urban planning, the idea that the housing problem was a public issue began in England during the Industrial Revolution. At the beginning of this period, there was little legal right to regulate housing and thus many mid 19th century reformers had to struggle to simply assert the right that government regulation of housing was legal and proper. In a sense, the housing problem was the problem of jurisdiction. But only the worst abuses and most horrendous conditions could be addressed in this era. These early reformers established the right to regulate housing, but these regulations were weak. And at the end of this period, housing conditions remained appalling.

In the latter half of the 19th century, a new way of thinking about housing problems emerged. The idea was that the problem centered around the fact that landlords did not know how to produce decent housing that was affordable to low-income tenants and that was economically profitable. At the same time, it was thought that there was a serious problem in that tenants, who were often immigrants into cities from rural areas or abroad.  The reformers at this time believed that tenement dwellers did not know how to live in cities or understand the successful habits of living in high density housing. In a sense, the housing problem was a one of ignorence and a lack of education on the part of both owners and renters.  To meet the problem of ignorence, this era saw the development of the model tenement movement and the settlement house movement, both highly influenced by Octavia Hill, the granddaughter of Thomas Southwood Smith. The model tenement advocates promoted what they called philanthropy at 5%, the idea that safe and healthy housing, affordable to working-class tenants, could be built that provided a profit the property owners.  The model tenements were meant to teach potential property owners how to build such housing. Through the settlement houses, new urban immigrants could be taught the basics of housekeeping and hygiene. Tenants would be taught how to live in these new units. Together, model tenements and model tenants would eliminate the evils in the slums. Ultimately, these movements failed because the model tenement advocates lacked of financial resources to build enough housing for all the poor people poured into cities.  Tenants couldn’t afford safe and decent housing.  The underlying assumptions were incorrect.

By the beginning of 20th century, still another way of characterizing the housing problem emerged, the problem was one of regulation. Lawrence Veiller was perhaps the greatest advocate of this idea, and with his allies he successfully persuaded the New York state legislature to pass a tenement law which became the model for housing laws across the United States. The law included not only detailed ideas on what was to be regulated in how housing was to be lived in, but also standards for setting up public health departments to regulate housing. The goal was to promote the construction of new healthy housing and to regulate the worst abuses of existing housing. Unfortunately housing as a regulatory problem failed to solve the housing needs of the poor as well. Perhaps most problematic was that in general, to meet the political opposition to these laws, existing housing tended to be exempt from the regulations, and the poor tended to cluster in existing unregulated tenements. Improved regulation did little to improve their lot.

It wasn’t until the 1920s, that Edith Elmer Wood examined the wages of unskilled and semiskilled workers and found that what they had available to pay for rent was insufficient to meet the costs of providing healthy housing. In that stroke of genius, Wood made housing an economic problem. The basic issue was how to reduce the cost of housing or enhance the ability of tenants to pay for housing so that safe and affordable housing would be available to the poor. We have tried a number of ways to address housing as an economic problem. There was public housing, which used federal and state dollars to meet the high cost of construction. There are the mortgage subsidy programs which sought to help lower middle class and middle-class people meet the economic challenges of a mortgage. And there is the Section 8 program which seeks to boost the ability of low income households pay the prevailing market rents.

Much of my forthcoming book focuses on this history and what it means for the health of people living in these units.

Being a genius isn’t everything

Monday, March 19th, 2012

I recently finished reading the book, The Fellowship, about Frank Lloyd Wright and school and offices at Taliesin and Taliesin West.  In one early draft of my forthcoming book, Building American Public Health, I referred to Wright as the United States’ greatest architects.  A reviewer made me take that line out, but it’s hard to think of another architect with as much broad and lasting influence.  The period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City highlights his amazing ability to design and occupy space, his prairie and usonian houses helped inspire American suburban architecture.   One can debate Wright’s place in American architecture, but one cannot deny the man’s genius. His ideas of a hundred years ago help shape our lives today.

But in other ways, Wright was a lunatic, elitist, and a racist.  He (or at least his last wife) flirted with the occult and strange paternalistic mysticism.  Wright was a notorious anti-Semite, selfish and beyond redemption when it came to personal relationships. The way he treated his acolytes who worked for him borders on the criminal. Even when he merely strayed from architecture to urban planning, Wright was off base. Wright’s ideas on urban and suburban design, as set forth in Broadacre City, were just plain wrong.  The idea of people living in scattered site developments, dependent on cars, growing their own food, divorced from each other is environmentally unsustainable, socially depleting and bad for health.

Nor was Wright all that great as a theoretician.  His attempts to articulate his ideas on design, often referred in the shorthand as organic architecture, boarder on the incoherent.  The man who was arguably the greatest genius of American architecture was amazingly stunted when it came to almost everything else.  He knew one thing, architecture; he knew it in a way that led everyone else to look at the world in a new way.  But he couldn’t see past his own prejudices in judging his surroundings or the world.  The lesson here?  We can admire genius (tempered, of course, by their moral and other shortcomings), but this admiration must always be bounded by sharp acknowledgement of the limits to genius.

A corollary cautionary tale is found when considering the geniuses of other fields.  Consider Steve Jobs.  He certainly made my life better with his visionary technologies.  But has he solved the problems of infant mortality, income inequality, global warming?  No.  He is a genius at melding design with technological innovation to develop new products that capture the imagination of many.  But he did not change the world.  Similarly, will we remember Bill Gates more for coming up a way of integrating the computer into everyday life?  Or will we remember him as the man who helped end the suffering and misery of billions.  Which should we remember him as?  Finally, there is Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal.  A great idea that is used by millions.  But his politics, as profiled in the New Yorker magazine, are a childish brand of libertarianism.  How can a man who is part of an industry that seems incapable of figuring out how to hire women and people of color in any appreciable numbers think he has the clues to solving the social ills of the 21st century.  There is a limit to genius.

Lewis Mumford and Modern housing

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Today I’m going to live on the edge and critique Lewis Mumford, one the giants of American urban planning and sociology.  According to Wikipedia, Mumford was born in 1895 in New York City and died in 1990. As part of my research for my forthcoming book, Building American Public Health, I read his essays from the New Yorker (he was the magazine’s architecture critic for over 30 years) as well as his very influential book, The City in History.  I read many other of his writings as well.  Mumford was a founding member of New York City’s Regional Plan Association and he strongly promoted mid 20th century orthodox urban planning:  strict separation of land uses, superblocks, and rationalization of the unruly chaos of city living.  He was very concerned with crime, most of his criticism of Jane Jacobs in his review of her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, focused on what he saw as her misguided approach to crime control – the eyes on the street and 24 hour uses as ways of keeping evil doers at bay.  The essay is not easy to find and it is at times sexist, but it is worth reading.

Mumford has an interesting relationship with Modern architecture.  He was one of its early promoters and he saw the cruciform and Y-shaped building of early Modernist housing as very health promoting, mostly because they separated people from cars and provided access to sunlight and ventilation.  In contrast, he called Park Avenue a high cost slum and predicted that the apartment buildings sprouting up on the Upper East Side would never hold their value once people realized how little light and air they allowed in.

I was in New York City recently and had a chance to compare Park Avenue in the east 70s, an area with apartment buildings tight to the street, to the Chelsea Homes in the west 20s, a mid-century Modernist superblock development. It’s sad to say that Mumford had it wrong.  Fortunately, New York City public housing has held its quality over the years, even the high rise housing.  But no one who could afford it would prefer the Modernist inspired superblocks/skyscraper in the park of the Chelsea Homes to the conventional buildings of Park Avenue.  Even Mumford, to his credit, turned eventually turned against the Modernist superblock ideal of housing.

Key dates in the history of the built environment

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

These dates are drawn from my upcoming book, Building American Public Health: Urban Planning, Architecture, and the Quest for Better Health in the United States

The list can be found at: