Sunday, July 24, 2011

What is Healthy Urbanism?

What is healthy urbanism? Since it is the title of this blog, I should probably define it. I’ll start by defining urbanism. This is a word that has been co-opted to serve different ideologies, to the point of nearly ceasing to have a neutral definition. As Brad Plumer points out in this piece, urbanism has “a P.R. problem.” Politically charged fear-mongering argues that urbanists want to enact policies to force unwilling suburbanites into crowded apartments in the urban core. Because urbanism’s most basic meaning is “the way of life of people in cities,” it is easy to see why the word can immediately put non-city dwellers on the defensive, thinking that urbanists want to remake all places in the image of Manhattan. It is unfortunate that the word has connotations that get in the way of its actual contemporary usage, so I’d like to explore what urbanism means today.

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.


  1. The photo of the garden apartment complex reminds me of a place I used to live. It was a co-op community that had originally been built for rental and had converted sometime in the early 1980’s. Some of the units front on a parking lot, just as in your photo, and I agree that it's pretty unattractive. But not all of them did. In the center of the complex there was a large open courtyard area and many of the apartments fronted on it.

    In the evenings it was a real gathering place. The kids play soccer and other games depending of their age. A lot of the little kids rode their training-wheel-equipped bikes (or tricycles) over there. Parents (and sometimes other adults, too) gathered outside, talking and visiting with each other. And the teenagers hung out in their own corner of the place -- with the primary objective of impressing the teenage kids of the opposite sex. One day, some of the little kids set up a lemonade stand. Personally, I liked to see all this; it made it seem more like a genuine community.

    I had to go to a co-op Board meeting shortly before I moved out because of some issues related to my sale. But the other residents attending the meeting were there to complain – loudly and angrily – about the courtyard. They objected to the lemonade stand. One woman thought the kids should all play by their own places and not in the central courtyard – where all the other kids are. Another was complaining that the soccer ball had hit the side of her unit. Still another went on about how "I don't live here in order to put up with this sort of thing." One of the Board members, however, spoke up to say that he was a parent and really liked the fact that he could live in an area where his kids had lots of friends living nearby and he could let them go out and play in a safe environment.

    My point simply is that many people will try to create the pedestrian-friendly, human-scale interactive space to the extent that they can – but that there are others who will push back because of their interest in privacy, peace and quiet, and general grumpiness with the rest of the human race, I guess. Ideally, the grumps should move to remote places, or residences should be sound-protected from the public areas somehow. But, if we're going to work with the spaces we have (and what's the alternative for starters?) then we'll have to either overcome these attitudes or make some provision for them.

  2. Yes, it is too bad that an attempt to create a real community could become the target of so much anger. Urbanists (myself included) do need to keep in mind that not everyone wants such experiences - there are always going to be people who prefer privacy and solitude. And even among those who do prefer to live in denser, mixed-use neighborhoods, very few will want noise intruding into their private space. That is what I mean by balancing the private and the public realms - both must be prioritized.

    I think that this anecdote illustrates a larger point about the suburban environment: it is not serving anybody particularly well. It promises the best of urban and rural life - convenience to the city combined with the tranquility of the country. Unfortunately, what it has delivered in recent years is practically the opposite: the noise and congestion of the city without the walkability or proximity to arts offerings, etc.

    From your description, it sounds like there is some ambiguity about the function of this courtyard. It’s obviously not public space, in that only residents of the complex can access it. But it’s not completely private either, in that it’s not owned by any one person. With such ambiguity, there comes to be disagreement over the proper role of such space. Private/public ambiguity is something of a concern and is continuing to proliferate. The latest incarnation of the shopping mall, with its hideous name of “lifestyle center” ( is an example of this. If private development (masquerading as a traditional downtown) becomes a substitute for real public space, what are the implications for democracy? I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but the public realm is supposed to be a place where citizens can exercise their civil rights. But in these ersatz public spaces, private security can prevent any behavior that the owner deems unacceptable. This may lead to a more comfortable shopping experience, but it’s hard to argue that this represents healthy civic life.