Archive for the ‘Urban Deisgn’ Category

Chelsea, Massachusetts Water Front Park

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

This is great news!  Ill post pictures when the park opens later this year.

Boston Globe Article


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.

The lack of benefits of large projects

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Cities spend millions of dollars on sports arenas and cultural institutions in part because they are thought to help spur development around them. Well, not always.

The Staples Center and the next door convention center (and the Nokia Theater – rumored to be the next home of the Oscar presentations), despite being the home of two basketball teams and a hockey team, sits in a wasteland. The gruesome LA Live is next door – a mediocre attempt at a walkable area that is second rate compared to the Grove over on the Westside. It has an ESPNzone and a Flemings Steakhouse among other chain restaurants. And the Grammys Museum. Yet collectively these institutions have one nothing for the surrounding area. The largest adjacent business is a freestanding Hooters. There are many vacant lots used for parking.

There is a similar problem on the other side if downtown with the Disney Concert Hall. It’s a great building.  But you can’t eat nearby because there are no restaurants. And not much of anything else except some fortress like office buildings and apartments. It doesn’t look like Broad’s Museum of Contemporary Art is going to add to the area either.  Sorry LA.

My guess is that the lack if spinoff effects stems from LA’s automobile problem. First, since downtown is so remote from the rest of the city, no one can arrive early for an event in time to eat. Second, because LA refuses to slow down traffic on downtown streets (memo to the City of LA – ever heard of traffic calming or complete streets?). The area is scary for pedestrians.

The lesson is that building big ticket items is not enough. You need to pay attention to context.

Public Health Approaches to Large Scale Behavioral Change

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Promoting Active Environments:  A Public Health Approach to Large-Scale Behavioral Change


             The public health profession has developed theories and methodologies to promote behavior change on both the individual and population level. From reducing tobacco use to encouraging seat belt acceptance, many behavioral change campaigns have been successful.  This paper suggests ways these theories and methodologies could be used to create large-scale, nationwide change to promote active living.

Active living environments is used here to mean communities that foster walking, biking, and public transportation through mixed use, compact and dense development forms, and transportation systems that reduce car use. The alternative is conventional development: large lot zoning, strict separation of land uses, and streets heavily engineered for cars.

Evidence suggests that active environments promote physical activity, reduce obesity, improve mental health, and strengthen social capital.  These may increase health and reduce morbidity and mortality.


             This analysis aims to provide the beginning of a discussion of what a broad public health campaign to promote the creation and use of active living environments might look like.

Objectives include:

Identify models of behavioral change that might assist policy makers and advocates to promote active living environments with an emphasis on families with children and communities of color.

  •  Encourage efforts to change social norms that prioritize active communities.
  • Propose strategies for advancing the preference for active living.

Two outcomes were prioritized:


  • Increase demand.  How might we encourage individuals and families to choose to live in active environments?


  • Increase supply. How might we encourage governments to implement changes to codes and development guidelines that would result in more active communities?




This analysis included a scan of the public health literature on promoting behavior change.  In addition to broad theoretical models of change, it drew on experiences including reducing tobacco use as models for promoting change at both the individual and community level.




Traditionally, public health has focused on promoting behavioral change on the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and population level.  All these levels must be addressed if we are to increase both the supply of and demand for active environments.  Specific examples include:


Intrapersonal Level. Health belief models of change suggest that public health efforts include working with individuals and families to help them understand that by living in active environments, they can increase physical activity and reduce obesity risk. Thus they should be educated regarding the ways that conventional environments can pose barriers to health, particularly for children, and that health may improve by living in active environments. These campaigns should utilize planned behavior theory and encourage changes in attitudes toward living in active environments, increase perceptions that moving to these environments would mean adopting new social norms that prioritize active living, demonstrate that families with children have the ability to live in these communities in ways that would enhance their health and well being, and identify specific neighborhood attribute choices that would promote health.  Stages of change theory suggest encouraging families to the point where they contemplate moving to an active environment and then help them make that move (a priority target would be people of color most at risk for obesity).  It also suggests that strategies to help those who already live in active environments not to leave (perhaps targeting inner-city residents considering moves to the suburbs).


Intrapersonal Level. Social cognitive theory suggests that campaigns to promote active living environments should aim to change expectations regarding the kinds of neighborhoods people should live in (for example, currently many families believe that conventional neighborhoods are the only appropriate place for children).  It would communicate the idea that individuals and families have the ability to demand and choose healthy neighborhood designs. Social network theory suggests changing norms of behavior so that conventional environments are seen as less desirable.  At the same time, living in active communities would be promoted as more healthy.

Population Level.  Communication theory suggests that information campaigns are necessary so that the public understands the health consequences of conventional development with special outreach to linguistic minorities.  Diffusion of innovation models would imply the targeting of key individuals (particularly in minority communities) as the starting point in changing social norms and behavior.  Community mobilization experience demonstrates the need for planning, coalition building, and action.



             If we are to move towards having a sizable portion of the US (and other countries) living in active environments, then there is a need to initiate large scale attitude and behavioral change strategies. These initatives should include working with individuals to increase the number of people who desire to live in active environments and to develop a constituency that supports changes in zoning and development guidelines. On the community level, these strategies would have the ultimate goal of creating more opportunities for active living.  Together, they may move societies toward better health.

Urban Space (Theory)

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Today’s post is going to be heavy on theory and theoretical models of the built environment.  The goal here is to make these theories understandable and applicable to our everyday experience.

Henri Lefebvre famously said that urban space is socially constructed.  But what did that 1970s French Marxist urban theorist mean?  I interpret it to suggest that a society’s and community’s values, assumptions, and ideologies end up shaping the way the human made environment is constructed.  Thus if a society values the personal freedom of the car and believes that single family houses provide the healthiest environments for raising children, and if that society established social norms that look down on using public transit or living in  inner cities, then the result will be a suburban focused society of single family houses on large lots:  the late 20th century US suburb.

Later urban theorists have suggested that space is the result of conflict.  Much of this theory came out of the experience of gentrification where there were often economic and physical conflicts between newcomers and those being displaced.  Thus if affluent households move into previously poor neighborhoods, the dynamic can be described as a conflict between the two groups, one that the unequal power relationships result in neighborhood change.

I’d like to put these ideas together and suggest that urban space is the result of conflicts of ideas.  Some people envision a neighborhood of low income, white ethnic families centered around Catholic parishes.  Others see the community as a place where newly arriving  immigrants from the South can find affordable housing.  The result is the racial change and conflict of the 1950s – 1990s.  But notice that the conflict “on the ground” flows from this conflict of ideas.  One group sees the neighborhood to be one way, the other another.  The result is that each group competes for the space by trying to enforce its views of the ideal neighborhood form on the physical ground.  Today, we see this conflict between those who believe in car centric suburbs and those who want walkable communities.  But again, the vision for the community precedes the actual urban form as seen on the ground.

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.

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts: Three entrances, three stories

Monday, March 5th, 2012

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is one of the city’s greatest assets.  It is a world class museum that contains extensive collections of American, Impressionist, and Egyptian art, among other great holdings.  It opened a new wing last year that I have already commented on.  One of the more interesting things is that the museum has three entrances.  Each has a lesson for how to build cities to make them more amenable for pedestrians and urban living.

One entrance is through the West Wing, a 1980s addition designed by I.M. Pei and Associates.  Up until a few years ago, it was the only way to enter the museum, the complex’s front door as it were was on the side.  For those who have never been there, the MFA sits on an entire block between two major streets:  Huntington Avenue and the Fenway.  The West Wing entrance was to a parking lot on a minor street that connects the two major arterials.  There was a drive and a drop off to the entrance, but mostly, one entered by wandering through parking lots, some filled with delivery and service vehicles.  It was most inartistic and very unsatisfying and difficult for tourists to navigate.  The MFA, to its credit, has discontinued this entrance, using it only for tour groups.  They recognized the mistake of this most inartistic entrance to a building of high artistic merit.  But the design is important if only as a way to remember how people once thought of cities and cars.  The design reflected the idea that people only travel through cities in cars (despite the fact there is a trolley stop on Huntington Avenue – you exited the street car and had to figure out how to get through the service parking lot to the West Wing entrance).  The design turned its back on urban living and public transportation.  It denied the primacy of walking.  The MFA is to be commended for discontinuing this entrance.

The MFA re-opened its Fenway entrance a couple of years ago as part of its reconfiguring the museum when it began its expansion plans.  The Fenway entrance is grand:  it faces the beautiful parkway  (in the old fashioned sense – it is two lanes, moderate speed, meandering, not a fancy name for a freeway) designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as part of his famed emerald necklace.  The whole façade is a fancy Beaux Art masterpiece, a building that communicates the importance of the MFA to the city.  The entrance is up a broad set of stairs with multistory columns, creating a sense of theater.  A tiny driveway, chained off, fronts the building.

This grand building opens to the Back Bay Fens, but it’s an entrance to nowhere.  The Fenway entrance is not close to public transportation, and it’s a long block away from the nearest parking.  It’s a grand gesture for those who were traveling by in the carriages, or today for people passing in their cars, but it’s not much more than a billboard for the museum itself.  There is a related problem if you enter from the Fenway side, it doesn’t relate to the building’s interior circulation.  We went to the MFA for a concert this afternoon, entered through the Fenway entrance and even though we know the museum very well, it remains disorientating.  If only form followed function.

The MFA’s main entrance is back to where it was originally:  on Huntington Avenue.  The street is a major arterial, but strangely ungrand.  The trolley tracks are set off by so so plantings and there is nothing across the street worthy of the great building itself.  That said, the entrance is what an old great museum should be: reverential, inviting, well placed, monumental.  Given the history of the building, the placement on the Fenway which leads off to nowhere, the 1970s era monument to parking fetishism, and the general plainness of the Huntington Avenue side, the MFA has done the best possible job it could do.

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.

The Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

I have now been to the new Art of the Americans wing at Boston’s Museum of fine arts twice. The new wing, designed by Foster + Partners, is a great place to look at art. Not only is your work itself great, with many famous paintings, the rooms in the new edition are well proportioned and are clearly well thought out on how to showcase the art itself. In some museums, this is not always the case. As much as I like Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum addition, it really does overshadow the art in the museum.

Some features of the building demonstrate the problems of connecting buildings to their surroundings. This is not a new problem for the MFA. For many years the museum turned its back on its surroundings, including Frederick law Olmsted’s Back Bay fens, and the entrance to the museum was via the very unsatisfactory means of walking along a fairly narrow sidewalk or uninspiring driveway between two large parking lots from a side of museum. One would then enter through the IM Pei designed West wing.  To its credit the MFA has opened up both its Huntington Avenue and Fenway entrances. The West Wing entrance is now only use for tour groups.

But there is a problem with museums in general when it comes to connections to the surrounding neighborhoods. By necessity a museum must be a fortress; there can be no connections between the outside and the inside, and all entrances must be heavily guarded. Otherwise someone might run off with the artwork or worse. So the outside of the museum is not as successful as the interior. There are some nice windows and at night one could possibly see light shining out from museum into the surrounding neighborhood. But for the most part it is a forbidding closed off building for people passing by. Obviously museums a great municipal asset. But they do create problems for the surrounding area.

The Shapiro Courtyard connecting the new wing in the older part of museum is also a problem. The space itself is large with very high ceilings and part of it was ingenious in that it incorporated the old exterior façade as the interior wall of this new glass-enclosed room. The café is great by the way. But the two sidewalls between the old and the museums are problematic. I guess they meant to provide sunlight and on one of the days I visited it was sunny, but because of the way the shadows surround the room it’s really hard to see out and mostly the glass acts like a mirror. It doesn’t really function to bring the outside in. One of the small outdoor areas alongside these glass walls does have some trees and plantings but one wonders how long ago the last since they pretty much exist in gloom. The architects deserve great praise for the concentration on the artwork itself, something other museums having quite figured out. But I think maybe the problems of the relationship between the interior the next area are just too great to mitigate.

City Building Isn’t Easy

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

The American Public Health Association’s annual gathering was in Denver this week.  The weather started out quite warm, in the 70’s and I had some time to walk around the downtown portion of the city.  The urban core is prosperous and is an interesting mix of good and poor design.  Here is an assessment of some of its good, bad and debatable points.

16th Street mall. The city has successfully fostered the development of an outdoor pedestrian mall that stretches for a mile along the western side of downtown.  Lined with restaurants, a few chain stores and other stores aimed at tourists, the mall is full of pedestrians and has only a few vacancies.  A free shuttle with very frequent service attracts lots of people.  On a warm Saturday evening, there was good multiracial and mixed group of ages in the area.  Perhaps the only thing it might benefit from would be a few more trees.

One way streets.  It seems as if almost every one of Denver’s streets is one way.  Most of the city core (if not the entire city) is a grid.  That’s good.  But the one way streets, most of which are of generous width, invite speeding.  For such a laid back city, its motorists are in a great hurry.  The high speeds vastly reduced the quality of the pedestrian experience.

Vacant lots and parking lots.  Once one gets off the 16th Street mall and goes west towards the convention center, there are far too many parking lots and vacant lots.  These are dead zones.  While 16th Street may be among the best urban experiences in the United States, 15th Street, 14th Street, etc, are wastelands, deserted of pedestrians and street life.

The cultural district.  Just south of the Capital is the Denver Art Museum, Denver Public Library and other buildings.  The Public Library was designed by Michael Graves and the addition to the Art Museum is a spectacular building by Daniel Libeskind (more on the library in another post).  Many friends and colleagues expressed a great satisfaction with the area.  This might reflect the great way the buildings play off each other.  But a problem is that the complex of buildings is isolated, and seems to have little positive impact on the neighborhood around it. Broadway, which runs alongside the complex, is creepily devoid of people.

Public transportation to the airport.  The new Denver airport is miles from the city center.  A cab ride will set you back $50 or $60.  The public bus costs $10.  But the ride takes an hour and only leaves once an hour.  Denver should be ashamed of itself.

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

Boston’s Seaport District: Is it a failure?

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

We know a lot about how  to build a good neighborhood.  If you want to know how to build a bad neighborhood, take a field trip to Boston’s Seaport District.  I go through there frequently on the way to and from the airport. Some of its problems:

Blocks are too large.  Small blocks encourage pedestrian use.  They slow down cars.  They breakup building mass, making the street scale more humane.  The Seaport District  is mostly large blocks.  Once the area is fully developed, pedestrians will  not be able to cross streets frequently enough.  Each block will be an island unto itself.

Streets are too wide.  Narrow streets encourage pedestrians and slow traffic. It seems like all the streets in the SD are at least two wide lanes in each direction. This neighborhood discourages walking. And the wide lanes encourage speeding.

Avoid blank walls.  Blank spaces are dead spaces.  Most of the buildings appear to offer only blank walls to the street. Some appear to have blank walls on three of their four sides (Is that true Seaport Hotel?). Obviously, the area has not entirely taken off yet, but what are they going to do, blow out the brick at a later date?

Don’t have highways.  Each time the approaches to the Ted Williams Tunnel is exposed, it kills the surrounding area.

Grids work.  They promote walking by creating multiple, easy to identify paths between activities. The street pattern in the SD is incomprehensible.

Public transportation is essential  The Silver Line bus circles and twists to get to the tunnel entrance.  Whatever happened to the promise that the buses would trip the traffic lights?  There is one particular light that makes the buses sit while no through cars pass by.

Piazza D’Italia – The Limits of Good Design

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

When I was in New Orleans for the American Planning Association conference in April, I stopped in to look at the Piazza D’Italia, the homage to the city’s Italian immigrants.  The Piazza opened in  1978 and was designed by Charles Moore and Perez and Associates.  It is of post-modern design,  it has certain similarities to Michael Grave’s Portland Public Service Building (1982) in its use of color and  neoclassicism.  The  piazza reminds me of the surrealist paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, who also used juxtapositions of columns and arches. The Piazza is famous for having been used as the opening scene in the movie, The Big Easy. It is one of the most interesting visits in a most interesting city.

And it is empty, devoid of people, abandoned.  Just off Canal,  a block or so from the French Quarter, between the Central Business District and the waterfront, it is surrounded by blank Modernist walls and parking lots. For me, it was nice that I could sit there for a couple of minutes alone, peacefully contemplating one of the best pieces of urban design on the 1970s.  But it is unnerving that it should be so utterly not seen.

The lesson is that no matter  how well designed a public space may be, context can trump it.  If no one is around to enjoy the space, if the surrounding urban fabric is not supportive of the space, it will not serve to increase walkability and social interaction.  The planners of the project had hoped for a revitalization of the area that would have provided supportive buildings around the Piazza, but this never happened.  So it is a unused jewel of a space.