Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Learning from Las Vegas. A 2013 update

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Learning from Las Vegas. A 2013 update.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote their famous book, Learning from Las Vegas forty years ago. The book had two well-known ideas:  they divided buildings into either decorated sheds (those  that relied on ornamentation to communicate function) and ducklings (those that communicated their meaning by their physical form and they proposed that the architecture of Las Vegas  was meant to be seen by cars traveling by at 35-40 miles per hour.

I was in Las Vegas recently and I decided to reassess these ideas while there.

1. The decorated shed/duckling dichotomy is still valuable for considering architecture. But we now know that some buildings lie (the New York casino is not really New York). Also, a great many building simply have nothing to say. The curse of many buildings and neighborhoods is that they are dull. Or ugly. The fact that they are trying to say something is irrelevant.

2.  The architecture of the suburban strip may be meant to be observed at 35 miles per hour, but suburban traffic means that these speeds are rarely achieved. The architecture of the big box store behind acres of parking is immediately recognizable. But the slower speeds diminish their impact.

3.  In Las Vegas, new development eliminates the big setback from the street. The buildings now closely hug the sidewalk. So the very urban form the authors were celebrating, the conditions that facilitated the ability to appreciate commercial strips are no longer there.

4. Commercial strip architecture, essentially born in the post war era, is now old and feels dated. It’s not something new and trendy, if under appreciated. It’s what our parents like. It’s time for a new idiom to be born.

How did we get here? A history of health and the built environment in the United States

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

How did we get here? A history of health and the built environment in the United States

Research on health and the built environment, often focused on obesity and physical activity, exploded after 2000.  In the past ten years, the number of published papers has dramatically increased and a consensus has emerged as to what is the ideal environment for promoting the health of everyone.  Part of this effort has resulted in new criticisms of conventional development patterns that has features which separately and in concert contribute to a variety of negative health outcomes.

Given the health problems now associated with conventional development, observers might conclude that conventional development resulted from ideas about the built environment that consciously ignored their potential health impacts or were created without any underlying thought or theory at all; conventional development is the result of mindless chaos.  But this is wrong.  The very features of conventional development now known to be negative for health are actually the result of thoughtful responses to the perceived health and environmental problems of earlier times.

Health has played a major role in shaping the built environment since the middle of the nineteenth century.  The professions of public health and urban planning both arose during this time in response to the health and environmental problems associated with industrialization, immigration, and urbanization.  Health provided the legal rational for public policy interventions that shaped urban law, zoning, and building codes.  It was an important force in conventional suburban design theory, ideas regarding urban growth and decay, and major architectural movements such as modernism and suburban neighborhood design.

This has important implications for current efforts to produce active living environments.  Battles over the legal authority to regulate housing parallel current efforts to limit access to unhealthy food in schools and neighborhoods, for example. The findings also suggest the need for continuing reassessment and evaluation.  A central problem underlying many of the policy failures of past efforts to improve the built environment to promote health is that hypotheses were untested and implemented programs were not evaluated.  Thus the health effects of the conventional suburban cul de sac neighborhood were not assessed until the end of the 1990s, nearly 45 years after the large scale post war suburban growth surge began and over 100 years after the theory of neighborhood design that produced it began to emerge.

By learning about the struggles, successes, and failures of past policies, we can make current and future efforts to use the built environment to promote health more effective.












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.

New York Streets Neighborhood – Boston

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Henri Lefevbre famously said that urban space is socially constructed. Peter Marcuse elaborated on this by pointing out that urban form is the result of conflict  between groups.  Langley Keys used game theory to describe these conflicts, pointing out that different groups have identifiable strengths and goals they bring into these conflicts and thus the resulting form is the result of compromises and battles between these groups.

But what happens when one group has all the power and has no need or desire to compromise?  The result can be the extreme rebuilding of a neighborhood.  One community that has seen at least a half dozen of these highly unequal battles for space is Boston’s New York Streets Neighborhood.  This project is a case study documenting how extreme inequality can dramatically change urban landscapes.

A history of urban sprawl

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

We know that people in the United States have been moving to the edges of cities and metropolitan areas for centuries. See Robert Bruegann’s A Compact History of Sprawl or Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia for the details of this history.  Even the post World War II era saw several waves of suburban development development that Hayden characterized as sitcom suburbs and edge cities. The end of the century saw extreme commutes with a lot of development in what are now often referred to as exurbs.

But what we don’t know is how much sprawl has been occurring over the past many decades and whether these trends are continuing at a steady pace, accelerating, or decelerating. One very imprecise measure is the proportion of people living in suburbs versus center cities, but this tells us very little  because some suburbs are very dense and sone central cities contain large areas of low density development. For example, some suburbs are denser than their center cities: Somerville, MA and Daly City, CA are two.  Other cities, such as Phoenix and Houston, have very low density areas within their city limits (not to mention the issue with measures for consolidated cities an counties).

A problem with many sprawl measures is that they’re relative measures. Even if you could calculate them for multiple years, they would not tell you how sprawl changed in that particular metro area.

So one project I am working on is to calculate sprawl for every metro area for each census year from 1970 to 2010. This uses a measure developed by my colleague Pat Hynes and me that is based on the difference between the proportion of a metropolitan area’s high density and low density population. A measure I call the Density Balance Sprawl Index.

The results, almost ready for publication, will surprise many people. Stay tuned.

New York Streets Neighborhood Boston

Monday, November 12th, 2012

I am working on a paper on how local to global economic and social forces can dramatically reshape a community. The paper focuses on the New York Streets area of Boston. It was once a poor but close knit integrated community. Then it was destroyed by urban renewal. The neighborhood had 4500 people when it was completely demolished.  It was replaced by a failed industrial park.  The community was the home of Mel King, the great State Representative and almost Mayor of Boston.

Allison Barnett (a great writer) recently authored an article on NYS in the South End News.

Here are some pictures I took of the area.  Imagine 4500 once lived here.


Should Modernism be preserved?

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

I love Modern architecture.  One of the highlights of last year was when I visited Phillip Johnson’s spectacular Glass House in New Canaan, CT.  The house has a serenity, an intelligence and a beauty that is difficult to describe in words.  It makes you feel, it makes you connect to it.  I am so grateful it has been preserved and made available to the public.  Other Modern favorites are Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Chicago lakefront apartment buildings.  The Seagram Building and Lever Building in New York are must see attractions in my book.

But should all Modern building be saved? No.  Too many are second rate, bad, dysfunctional.  For example, should anyone weep over the Walter Gropius’s MetLife building in New York?  No.  If it were to be torn down, all that we would lose is a firsthand example of how architects can be arrogant or unable to resist the pressure of commerce.

I don’t buy the arguments that someday, we will miss these buildings when tastes change.  A couple of years ago, James Levine presented a Boston Symphony Orchestra season long program of Schoenberg and Beethoven.  After a year of concerts, lectures and exhibits, I still don’t like Schoenberg.  I now understand why I don’t and also understand why after nearly a century, the public doesn’t either.  Modern music fails to resonate with people’s psychic needs.  It doesn’t connect. Much of Modern architecture is the same.  The public is never going to come around.  Stop waiting.  Most of these buildings should go.

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:

Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson: Legacies

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

This year makes the 50th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.  This posting will be the first of a series of postings assessing  the work, influence, and legacy of these two wise authors.

It is perhaps difficult to remember the prevailing ethos of the era that produced these books.  The end of the 1950s was a time when faith in government was strong:  there had been no JFK assassination, no Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle was in full stream, but it had yet to shake confidence in the belief that US society was flawed.  Just as important, in my opinion, is that there was a lack of awareness of the way unintended consequences or unwanted failures of policy or processes, could wreck havoc on the world around us.

For example, no one who used DDT and other pesticides had set out to poison birds and destroy the ecosystem.  Many would have been surprised to even think that the manmade world intersected with the natural.  But Carson laid out the case that the unintended consequences of pesticide use was harming bird populations and that unregulated and unforeseen movement of man-made chemicals could severely alter ecosystems for the worse.

Jacobs’s targets were more purposive.  Conventional urban renewal, modernism, and Broadacre-like development had meant to provide vibrant, healthy communities and revive cities. But Jacobs pointed out that the effects were in reality, quite the opposite.  Rather than helping cities, these types of design ideas were actually destroying them.

In the post Jacobs-Carson world, we are more savvy.  We now know that wanting to do good is not enough, bad things can happen despite the best of intentions.  We know that our every action can have important impacts that were not anticipated.  Our actions have consequences, our everyday lives can affect others.

Landscape urbanism and health

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

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.

Urban Sprawl 1970 – 2000

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

In preparation for the 2010 Census data release next month, I have recalculated urban  sprawl values for every US metropolitan area using 2010 definitions of metropolitan areas.  The 1970 – 2000 data is available here:

1970 – 2000 Urban sprawl data

The data provided here have a high correlation with the Smart Growth America data.  Basically, the value here represents the percent of a metropolitan area’s population living in low density (< 3,500 persons per square mile) census tracts.  Rural areas of metro areas (population density < 200 persons per square mile) are excluded.

2010 values once the 2010 data become available.

Key dates in the history of the built environment and health

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

These dates were extracted from my upcoming book, Building Better Health:  A History.  The book covers the intersection of urban planning and public health and traces the history of efforts to  modify the built environment to promote health in the United States roughly from 1800 to the present.  the full list of key dates can be found here:

Any ideas for additional dates would be greatly appreciated.

Why health and the built environment now?

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

One interesting, yet unanswered, question is why did health and urban planning reconnect at the end of the 20th century after decades of their traveling on separate pathways?  There are several potential, overlapping reasons for this reconnection.

It could be that as the United States and other societies became more prosperous over the 1990s, their sense of environmental consciousness and demand for healthier living increased.  In a sense, this would represents movement along the Kuznets curve, the theory that as incomes grow, environmental degradation first increases as consumers demand products that address their basic needs and then decreases as consumers begin to demand cleaner environments.  Incomes in the US may have finally reached the point where the public demanded the health amenities associated with better built environments.  Evidence for this might be that New Urbanist developments and more compact metro areas command higher price premiums.

It could have been the rising tide of obesity that sparked health researchers to look at the environmental causes of increasing weight.  The increase happened far to rapidly to be the result of genetic change.  So there must have been a change in the environment, perhaps beginning in the 1970s or 1980s, that resulted in changes to the health of the US population.  While no one has documented any profound change that occurred at the time, it could have been that the nature of post war suburbia began to change somewhere at the moment.  Other alternatives, such as changes in diet (high fructose corn syrup) or changes in chemical burden (PCBEs etc.) don’t appear biologically plausible or do not explain the epidemiology of the disease.

Whatever was the initial spark, the movement gained momentum by other events including the SARS epidemic and the destruction of the World Trade Towers.  Architecture became pushed back into the consciousness of the research public.

Even though I was part of this awakening,  don’t really recall what was its impetus.  It should e documented before it becomes lost to history.

New Urbanism and Health

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

Last night as I was teaching my Built Environment class, I recounted the history of New Urbanism and its relationship to health.  The association between the two is very interesting. But it is important to note that health did not help drive the development of New Urbanism.  In fact, it was the opposite, New Urbanism helped public health return to the study of the built environment.  While there may now  be evidence to suggest that New Urbanist developments and principles are health promoting, this came after the fact.

 New Urbanism began in the 1980s as a reaction against conventional development and the concerns that the vast majority of development in the US post World War II was ugly, bad for the environment and failing the needs of communities.  It was heavily influenced by the theories of Jane Jacobs and it consciously modeled its institutions and texts after the great Modernist organization, CIAM. 

But a reading of the Charter for the New Urbanism, key early texts such as The new urbanism: Toward an architecture of community by Peter Katz, and Andres Duany’s (and other’s) model New Urbanism code, finds no mention of health except in the most perfunctory and old fashioned way.  In the Charter, the one mention of a healthy environment is clearly aimed at ecosystem health.  The model code mentions health three times in ways that suggests it is still focused on sunlight and ventilation – not different than how health and the built environment was characterized over 100 years before by Thomas Southwood Smith.  Some of the essays in Peter Katz’s book do talk about walking and pedestrian circulation, but these are not tied to health.

When the obesity hit in the mid 1980s, public health researchers searched for ideas that led them back to the study of the built environment.  At that point, it seems as if they adopted the principles of New Urbanism more or less as a whole.  But these had not yet been tested by epidemiological studies.  That came later.  In a sense, first urban planning and architecture influenced health, then health influenced urban planning.  It is an important distinction.

Built Environment History Book

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

In addition to and separate from the text book, I also have a book on the history of using architecture and planning to promote health coming out next summer. Here are the chapter synopses.

Chapter 1. Introduction After decades of complacency regarding the built environment and health, a series of events sparked renewed attention on the role of buildings, neighborhoods, and metropolitan areas in safeguarding health, property, and life. In response, the professions of public health and urban planning, both broadly defined, began to work together again. A set of basic definitions are presented, a framework for analyzing the built environment is proposed, and some of the factors that influence how societies build neighborhoods and cities are discussed. Chapter 2. The Urban Crisis Begins Cities were troubled at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but the industrial revolution was to dramatically worsen conditions because of a combination of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. As low wage workers poured into growing cities, infrastructure was overwhelmed, housing became overcrowded and sanitation deteriorated. The results included epidemics, losses to fires, and frequent civil unrest. One legacy of this era is that many people continue to have a mental image of cities as unsafe, unhealthy places. Chapter 3. The Age of Reform A rising middle class and a growing reform movement began to try to address the conditions in cities. Based upon the science of this age including Thomas Southwood Smith’s medical writings on how miasmas caused disease, reformers conducted sanitary surveys and proposed laws to regulate the worst of environmental problems threatening urban populations. One result of the efforts of the sanitarians was the new profession of public health. Other efforts included model tenements, urban parks, and public water supplies. Important events and trends including the dramatic remaking of Paris, development of the skyscraper, and Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition were to change how cities looked. Chapter 4. Housing Laws, Zoning, and Building Codes A new generation of reformers began to take up the challenges of improving cities at the beginning of the twentieth century. Reformers developed a new housing law that served as the basis for model legislation across the United States. Another group of reformers borrowed the idea of zoning from Germany and eventually produced a model zoning law for use by states and cities. Along with the development of building codes, these laws helped to improve housing conditions, at least for new construction, and they are partially responsible for the standardization of the built environment in the United States. Chapter 5. Building a Suburban Utopia Suburbanization in the United States is as old as the country itself. Though many think of them as being built without plan or forethought, US suburbs are the result of a rich planning and health tradition. Suburban planning theory produced the ideas of the Garden City, the neighborhood unit, and other influential planning trends that Frank Lloyd Wright and others used to propose the ideal suburb. Suburbs have shortcomings, particularly in the racist policies that influenced their development in the mid twentieth century and their later adoption of dendritic street patterns, but have they provided a good life and healthy environment for millions. Chapter 6. The Lessons of Modernism A major twentieth century architectural movement, Modernism incorporated a strong dedication to promoting health and social justice. Determined to use new technologies, it purposely aimed to transform worker housing, office buildings, and cities. But its emphasis on unornamented buildings and high rises set on large superblocks, along with its ignoring of the needs and desires of building users, condemned it to failure as a means of protect health. It prioritized access to sunlight and ventilation, but was not based on epidemiological research. Though today there are a number of important buildings, its influence has faded. Chapter 7. Public Housing Over time, the characterization of housing issues changed from environmental to informational to regulatory to economic. Again borrowing from European examples, the public housing movement succeeded in promoting a program in the United States in the mid twentieth century. The failure of the program is often blamed on poor Modernist designs, but more important were the programmatic constraints placed on housing quality and the often inappropriate siting decisions of what became a highly politicized program. Today, the United States spends much more on subsidizing home ownership for the well to do than rental housing for the poor. Chapter 8. Urban Renewal and Highway Construction Cities were thought to be on the brink of a crisis as World War II ended because of suburbanization, poor housing, traffic and racist attitudes towards growing African American populations. Mayors sought to rebuild and strengthen their cities using the principles of Modernism and suburban inspired development programs. The result was urban renewal, which along with highway construction, destroyed urban neighborhoods and displaced millions. The new developments and highways failed to revive cities and the racist underpinnings of the program produced particular hardships for African Americans. In addition, public health played an important role in the implementation of urban renewal. Chapter 9. Decline and Rise Cities began to rebound in the final decades of the twentieth century, in part due to the successful implementation of theories by Jane Jacobs and others. She held that it was density and complexity that made urban living worthwhile and she specifically rejected the theories of Modernists, garden city advocates and others. New Urbanists and others used these ideas to promote compact communities that emphasized pedestrian circulation and mixed uses. These innovations were not always successful, but they helped spark rethinking of what was a healthy city. Public health, however, was not part of this effort at the time. Chapter 10. A New Age of Cities and Health As renewed immigration and the development of new urban forms helped revive cities in the United States, a growing obesity epidemic in this country caught the attention of public health. Because many of the alternative explanations for the rise in obesity were unsatisfactory, researchers returned to the study of the built environment and reestablished connections with urban planners. The evidence is yet definitive and there are many questions still to answer but today, these professions often jointly advocate for transit, community gardens, walkable communities and other health promoting programs and policies. Chapter 11. Future Trends and Needs The obesity epidemic, among other events, prompted a reconnection between public health and urban planning. A major threat looming for humanity is global climate change, which may dramatically reshape the built, social, and physical environment. At this time, we may not know how best to address this threat, but new and innovative responses are imperative. In the meantime, US urbanism is thriving and holds much promise. It should be hoped that we as a society can apply the lessons of the past 150 years of urban development to make our built environment healthier for all.

Built Environment Text Book

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

If all goes to plan, in the Summer of 2011, I will have a textbook published on the built environment and public health by Wiley/Jossey-Bass.  This book surveys the broad field of the built environment. It takes as its premise that there are profound health impacts on how buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and societies are built; and it uses historical analysis, epidemiology and public health research, and urban planning examples and public policy analysis, as well as case studies highlighting successful efforts to mitigate the health impacts of the built environment to analyze issues and develop provide the basis for programmatic responses. The goal is to empower students and readers to understand conditions around them and begin to address these health and environmental impacts. The book emphasizes science and solutions. The book was developed through my experience in teaching courses on the built environment and urban environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health. It is based on the model curriculum suggested by Botchway and colleagues (of which I was a contributor).

The chapters of the book are:

1.         Introduction

2.         History

3.         Planning and urban design

4.         Transportation

5.         Healthy housing and housing assistance programs

6.         Infrastructure and natural disasters

7.         Assessment tools and data sources

8.         Indoor and outdoor air quality

9.         Water

10.       Food, nutrition and food security

11.       Vulnerable populations

12.       Mental health, stressors, and health care environments

13.       Social capital

14.       Environmental justice

15.       Health policies

16.       Sustainability

US Cities are alive and growing

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Those of us of a certain age came to maturity at a time when US cities were thought to be obsolete and in unstoppable decline.  Many US cities had their population peaks in the 1950s and have lost population in almost every decade since then.  Detroit, St. Louis, Buffalo, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and many others, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast, have lost 50% of their peak populations in the past 60 years.  Focusing on these cities, it is easy to think that US urbanism is dead or dying.

But many cities have grown.  New York City has more people than it ever had in its history, as does San Francisco, Portland Oregon, Seattle.  Other, auto centric cities such as Los Angeles, San Jose, Phoenix, San Diego and many others continue to grow.  And their inner cores are not emptying out, they continue to be full of people.

Even some cities that have lost population since their heights in the 1950s are not really dying.  Boston, Chicago and others are smaller than they once were, but this reflects smaller household sizes, not a loss in the number of households.  There is an old joke told about former Massachusetts State Senate President Billy Bulger.  A muckracking reporter, thinking he has caught the wily Senate President in voter fraud, asks Bulger how could a three family building in his district routinely produce 20 votes.  Bulger replies,  “the second floor is vacant.”  These large families are no longer fashionable.  Households with 6 or more children have been replaced by single child households or single member households.  Unless you can build large numbers of new housing units, the 30% or more decline in mean household size is going to result in a loss of population.

It will be interesting to see the 2010 Census numbers when they are released next year.  Most likely, it will demonstrate that US cities are alive and growing.

The Heroic Project – Modernist Concrete Buildings in the Boston Area

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Unlike most (all?) of my students, I have a deep love of Modern architecture, even if many of the building are hard to love – it’s sort of like those people who keep porcupines as house pets.  You want to put your arms around these buildings even if they are inherently unhuggable.

I admire the Modernists because they so strongly believed in the ability of architecture to promote health and their  strict guidelines, and their many written works, all display a strong belief in the power of the built environment to improve humanity.  Though many of the architects who have come after them still try to incorporate social justice and health into their work, overall, these issues have moved away from the foreground of architecture.

It turns out I am not the only one who loves Modern buildings.  There is a an international organization aimed at promoting and preserving Modern buildings called Docomomo.  They have a website ( ) , sponsor conferences and have 53 local chapters around the world.   Though I don’t believe that we need to save every Modern building, many  are part of our heritage and should be kept safe from the wrecking ball.

The Boston area has a reputation for architectural conservatism and there are far too many plain brick buildings that display any imagination.  They may be nice because they blend in with their surroundings, but they do not inspire.

But many of the great Modern architects settled in Boston during the period after World War II:  Gropius, Sert, Bruer and along with other important Modern architects, they have left us with a legacy of great Modern buildings.  These include Peabody Terrace, the Carpenter Center, and the Harvard graduate dorms in Cambridge.  One building who’s designer I had not been aware of is Boston’s Madison Park High School, designed by Marcel Bruer.  As a large concrete brutalist building, it still works and is a great building.  Obviously, I have never gone to school there, but I have visited the building many times and I like how it flows, its feeing of both enclosure and openness, and the calm of its stately design.  It certainly communicates that whoever commissioned the building had a respect for its users.

I learned about Bruer’s involvement in Madison Park through the website of a group called The Heroic Project.  This grew out of a great exhibit at the Pinkcomma gallery on heroic architecture.  The Heroic Project is seeking to document Boston’s concrete Modern buildings and put out a monograph on them.   They are looking to raise funds for the project and I strongly urge everyone to support them.  The Heroic Project’s website (a  must visit) is .  Pinkcomma’s website, another must visit is .

Technology and the city

Friday, July 9th, 2010

The internet was supposed to make cities irrelevant.  Creative and high income people would live on mountain tops, connect to others via the internet and urban areas would wither.  Seriously, why live in a city when you can network on Facebook?

Didn’t happen.  Sure, Detroit and Buffalo other similar cities continued to lose population since 2000, but most large US cities are growing.  Even the most dense cities added population including New York, San Francisco and Boston.  This continued urban growth is not confined to technophobes.  It is said that if you want venture capital funding for an internet startup or a social networking company, you need to be within a 20 mile radius of Palo Alto California.  If you know the area, this is a crowded part of urban America.

Why hasn’t technology made cities obsolete?  It could be that we simply need more time.  Perhaps it may take decades for the locational effects of the internet to result in changes in residential choice.  But I am skeptical.  For one thing, the same threat to urban concentration that have been attached to the internet were  used for the telephone.  The rise in the telephone was supposed to  make cities obsolete.  More important, people simply like living in cities.  They like having other people around them and interacting with them.  Living on a mountain top is bad for your health because social isolation harms health.

The field of urban economics tells  us that there are advantages to be had from agglomeration and economies of scale.  Companies and people are more productive when they are near others.  So any preference for isolated rural living, is more than outweighed by the advantages of urban living.  Not that I am convinced this preference really exists.  While cities have been growing, rural areas continue to lose population.  Give it another 30 years, and let’s see if I am right.

The lessons of privately owned mass transit

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

I have taught my built environment course enough times to identify trends in students’ arguments. One of the more interesting shared assumptions is that General Motors killed public transit in the United States. The theory, popularized by the 1988 move, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, is that General Motors and its corporate allies bought up trolley systems across the United States, and destroyed them so that people would have to use cars and buses, products made by GM.

This is not a defense of GM. What they did was wrong and it did help ruin public transit in the US. Before the 1950s most cities had trolleys. By 1970, public transit was gone in most urban areas in this country.

But the lesson from this is different. The problem was the private ownership of transit. GM did not buy public transit, they bought private transit systems, companies, that provided transit. If these assets had been publicly owned, then they would not have been vulnerable. The lesson? Don’t let private companies own vital public services. Corporate interests are not public interests.

Behavioral norms can change

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Sometimes students in my courses or audience members attending one of my presentations become discouraged by the difficulty in changing behaviors or social norms of the US public.  The task of persuading people to incorporate physical activity into daily living patterns or the public to value density and city living appear to be so enormous that there is a temptation to give up.  There is no way to get the public to change its ways.

But recent history suggests that there can be substantial change in social norms.  When I was a child, cars did not have seat belts.  Today, most adults use them and the use of special car seats for infants and children is the norm.   Indicative of these changes in social norms is  that most states now require car seats for children.   This change happened within a few decades.

Similarly, there was a major change in tobacco-related social norms.  When I was young, hostesses kept boxes of cigarettes available for guests’ use, many high schools had smoking areas, and people regularly smoked at work, home, restaurants and around children.  Today, while too high a percentage of people smoke in the United States, smoking behavior itself is highly frowned on.  Even in New Orleans, I noticed that many people stepped out of bars to light up despite that smoking is still allowed in bars.  Behavioral norms can change.

These kind of group or society-wide type of interventions are a major tool of  public health. Rather than accepting values, beliefs and behaviors as fixed, public health can seek to change them.  In contrast, though urban planners often try marketing of individual products and try to persuade the public or elected officials to adopt new ideas, they don’t, for the most part, try to modify the parameters in which they operate.  Could they?  Might they try to work with communities to drive less, adopt higher densities, or embrace mixed income development? Though these are skills that are not taught in planning school, they are not beyond their capacity.

The power and persistence of wrong ideas

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

One of the most influential individuals on the shape and form of the built environment is a now obscure physician named Thomas Southwood Smith (1788-1861).  He was famous in his age and even achieved some notoriety when he conducted a public autopsy on Jeremy Bentham, the political philosopher.  Bentham believed in utilitarianism, the idea that government role was to maximize the happiness of the population.  By having an autopsy, Bentham and Smith sought to provide important medical data that would provide value to others.

We remember Smith because he connected the then dominant theory of disease causation, miasmas, to the built environment.  Miasma theory holds that bad smells from human and animal waste and decaying organic matter cause disease.  This was supplanted by the germ theory at the end of the 19th century, but it was strongly believed before that time.  The observational evidence appeared to support it.  Disease was worst in the slum districts, where the worst smells were.  Smith published a treatise on fevers which contained a taxonmy of fevers caused by decaying vegetable matter, decaying animal matter, etc.

Smith also connected the foul conditions in tenements to their high rates of disease.  He thought that the overcrowding and filth were causing the epidemics found there.  The answer, in his highly cited medical opinion, was sunlight and ventilation. These would break up or neutralize miasmas. Smith’s ideas underlay Edmund Chadwick’s, Lemual Shattuck’s and other’s sanitary survey findings.  They provided the “scientific basis” for early sanitary reform.  And then were passed unchallenged into our zoning and building codes.  In a certain sense, we live in a Southwood Smith world today.  There may well be other reasons for maximizing sunlight and  ventilation in housing, but the miasma theory was the dominant medical rational for doing so for over a hundred years.