Urbanism is the interaction of the activities of daily life - working, shopping, commuting, learning, playing - and the spaces in which we do them. An essay in a book I am reading now (the subject of an upcoming review) puts it this way: “urbanism is defined as that which exceeds the sum of its parts.” In other words, the parts (individual buildings, roads) do not exist in isolation; they relate to their surroundings and contribute to a whole larger than themselves: the public realm. When urbanists speak (generally pejoratively) of “sprawl,” they mean places where these relationships have broken down. The parts exist in isolation. Buildings do not attempt to relate in a meaningful way to neighboring buildings or to the street. Instead, private space is privileged over the public realm, and the public realm is degraded. When we think of urbanism in this way, as a quality of a place rather than a simple measure of its density, we realize that most human settlements - except for the most remote - can be discussed in terms of their urbanism.
Healthy urbanism is urbanism where the relationships of the parts to each other is strong, providing for a thriving public realm. It balances the health of the public realm with high quality private space - neither is privileged at the expense of the other. It seeks to create long-term value for land, rather than short term financial gain. It encourages connection and gathering, rather than separation and retreat (to the private realm). It supports an active and healthy rather than sedentary daily routine by being hospitable to non-automobile forms of mobility. It seeks to provide what sociologists call a “third place,” a place other than home or work for people to go and form social connections, which, as we are learning more all the time, are crucial to our mental well-being.
|This shopping mall, surrounded by vast parking lots, wide streets and no sidewalks, contributes to a poor public realm. Note that there is not a pedestrian in sight.||Commercial activity that is hospitable to pedestrian activity. This picture is meant specifically to show that good urbanism isn’t necessarily about good architecture. While it would be nice to have a more attractive building here, most of the important components of a pedestrian-friendly environment are still in place.|
|This garden apartment complex privileges private space over the public realm; streets through the complex are private, and the buildings abut parking lots, not streets.||The housing here is similar in many ways to the complex shown on the left, except that these multi-family dwellings directly face a public street with sidewalks.|
In the next few weeks I will be giving more side-by-side examples (good and bad) that I hope will illustrate the concepts of healthy urbanism. I’d like to clarify a few things, though. I have chosen to call this blog “Healthy Urbanism” not because I believe that I have hit upon a radical new approach to envisioning our built environment. Rather it reflects my background in public health and my desire not to align myself with any particular brand of urbanist ideology (modernism, landscape urbanism, new urbanism, etc.). Secondly, I’d like to make it clear that I harbor no illusions about the power of the built environment to make us all into healthier or better citizens. I do think that the built environment can be supportive of behaviors that we value. More importantly, I think it is important to offer choice. There is too little choice for Americans - particularly those of more modest means - to live in walkable, transit-oriented places with attractive, thriving public spaces. Rather than robbing Americans of their way of life, increasing the available choice of living arrangements is completely consistent with American values.
Lastly, I’d like to expand on a point I made earlier: examples of good urbanism are not only to be found in the city, and not all examples of urbanism in the city are good. Over the next few weeks and months, I will be showing more examples of this, in the hope of making the point that we can have good, healthy urbanism without making every place into a sea of skyscrapers. Which leads me to my final point about healthy urbanism: places that thrive, and that are valued by those who live in them, are valued for what makes them special and unique. This is what urbanists often refer to as a “sense of place.” So to make every place in the image of some particular place would in no way achieve the goal of good urbanism. Instead, healthy urbanism would forge better connections among the parts that are valued, and bring the public realm back to a healthier state. This will not be an easy fix, but exploring some strategies for achieving it will be the subject of this blog.