Design: A Long Term Preventative Medicine

Design: A Long Term Preventative Medicine

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism has produced a new report examining urban health in eight of the USA’s largest cities, which has been translated into a collection of meaningful findings for architects, designers, and urban planners. With more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas - a statistic which is projected to grow to 70% by 2050 - the report hinges around the theory that “massive urbanization can negatively affect human and environmental health in unique ways” and that, in many cases, these affects can be addressed by architects and designers by the way we create within and build upon our cities.

The report focuses on how to make cities liveable by designing for the future, whatever that might be. Clean air, places to run, green open space, light conditions, and sustainable practices of how we build are all key to understanding how to implement that in day to day practice.

Trying to improve the health of our cities and the wellbeing of their inhabitants is not a new ambition. In the US, the relationship between sanitation, health and landscape architecture began with the work of Frederick Law Olmsted during the Civil War. Understanding that density and over crowding were pivotal in the transmission of infectious disease, Olmsted suggested that the introduction of parks, trees and suburban neighborhoods into (and onto) crowded metropolises would significantly improve the health of the overall population. Pure water supplies, sewage carriage systems and sanitation mechanisms were largely in place by the 1930s.

In the UK, Ebenezer Howard's 1902 manifesto entitled Garden Cities of To-Morrow argued that the vast majority of people in large urban conurbations should move to entirely new self contained towns dotted around the British countryside. Whereas low density construction is not a viable option in the cities of today, we are in a position where interventions and considered design moves on individual projects within urban centres can considerably the overall wellbeing of its citizens.

We know that obesity, asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression (among others) are increasing at an alarming rate but there is very little data on where they sit geographically. These health issues are frequently linked to socioeconomic factors, physical design and urban environmental factors, all of which the MIT team have explored in eight US case studies: Atlanta, Houston, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston and New York.

The cities explored in the report. Image © MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism

The researchers have comprehensively gathered data about each city’s major design projects and by talking to communities, stakeholders and the government. Their studies ranged from analyzing individual suburbs and territories, to neighborhood health comparisons and each city’s wider socioeconomic context. The next step of the process is to determine which of the eight cities will serve as the “ultimate laboratory” for design solutions that can have an impact on the state of public health.

Obesity Rates in US Counties (2009). Image © MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism

Adèle Naudé Santos, Dean of the School of Architecture + Planning at MIT, has said that “this research begins to unearth a truth that urban planners for many years have not realized, which is that there is no silver bullet for urban health.” Since every city has its own unique socioeconomic and physical layout issues, “the solution to make urban health better is going to [vary].” For Santos, the “silver bullet” mentality (a view of the situation from technology or policy perspectives) has to stop.

For Alan Berger, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, the best way to assess the state of urban health is “to look across the entire metropolitan area that’s been urbanized in order to address the systems that make it perform”. “A city is a metropolitan area with all kinds of different fabrics, in terms of transit, economics, industry, the environment, and more.”

Design is a way of understanding how pieces of the city connect and the research put forward in this report is intended to act as a framework for concretizing reliable design solutions to the health crisis facing our urban metropolises. 

Read the report in full here (PDF).

About this author
Cite: James Taylor-Foster. "Design: A Long Term Preventative Medicine" 15 Dec 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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