Posts Tagged ‘health’

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.

Foreclosures and Environmental Health

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

I am in the process of putting together a paper on the potential environmental health impacts of the foreclosure crisis.  Here are some of the effects I’ve identified so far:

Direct impacts

Vacant buildings

Empty lots


Increased homelessness

Illegal dumping

Vector borne diseases

Increased demand for public services

Increased demand on police/fire services

Increased demand for social services

Increased demand for building code enforcement

Declining revenue impacts

Decreased park maintenance/operating hours

Reduced government services

Slower rate of environmental cleanups

Loss of transportation services

Reduced development opportunities

Slower brownfield redevelopment

Less development of needed development


Other development needs

Less construction of affordable housing

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.