Earlier this year, founding Partner at JTP, Fred London released Healthy Peacemaking (RIBA Publishing). Here, Dr David Lever reviews the book, discussing its impact and the important lessons we can learn.
Dr David Lever has almost 40 years of experience in architecture, private sector construction and community planning. With a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University and a doctorate in urban design from Rice University, David advises boards of education, local and State governments, and private entities on a range of educational facility matters, from masterplanning to project design and delivery. Here, he reviews Healthy Placemaking by Fred London, discussing the important lessons which the book provides.
In a time of pandemic, questions regarding the healthfulness of cities have taken on new meaning. While preparation for such devastating epidemics is of immediate concern, research shows that good urban design can help to address chronic illnesses and enhance overall physical and mental wellbeing.
In his book, Healthy Placemaking, architect Fred London marshals an array of medical and sociological evidence to explain how a number of preventable illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and mental illnesses, can be mitigated by incorporating spontaneous, unforced physical activity into the ordinary conduct of life – shopping, socialising, going to school, working and relaxing.
Walkable urban communities that rely on public transport can provide healthy counterweights to the sedentary lifestyles induced by contemporary occupations and the effortless availability of technology. The automobile, that remarkable instrument of personal convenience, is identified as a primary health concern; it mandates long periods of immobility for the driver, generates pollution that fouls the air and water, and demands an infrastructure that dramatically expands the urban area, creates hurdles to walkability and divides communities from one another.
Truly walkable communities can shift the balance to ‘active travel’, promoting physical activity in daily life while reducing the space requirements of vehicles. Walkability, however, must be supported by an integrated set of urban design factors:
- compact developments that place residences within a 10-minute stroll of services, transport and recreation
- multiple housing types to serve a population with varied needs
- a multi-modal, integrated, and efficient public transport system that shifts the balance toward active travel
- a comprehensive environmental system that links the smallest units of green to urban-scale recreation facilities.
To achieve these results, Healthy Placemaking outlines six inter-connected urban design principles.
- Urban planning – integrating the multiple physical and social factors that influence health
- Walkable communities – enhancing pedestrian access to daily services and amenities
- Neighbourhood building blocks – the smallest units of comprehensive planning
- Movement networks that promote active travel
- Environmental integration – bringing nature virtually to the doorstep
- Community empowerment – recognising that a good community planning process is itself an act of civic formation.
Case studies from Europe, North America and Asia illustrate the planning principles, each well documented with photographic images – although location maps and area plans would be a welcome addition – highlighting not only the strong points of the initiative, but also areas for improvement. While this book looks to pre-automobile forms of urban settlement for its models, it does not present a nostalgic view of older settlement patterns. The goal of healthful living is a common thread that can transcend disputes, past and present, between modernists and postmodernists, between new urbanists and landscape urbanists.
Emphasising human health as a primary focus of urban design establishes an intersection with preventive medicine, the least expensive form of health care, and suggests that good community design will be a wise investment toward reducing the increasing strain placed on medical services and facilities.
The benefits may be particularly pronounced for two of the most vulnerable groups in the population, the very young and the very elderly. Some form of healthy community audit could become a key criterion for judging the value of new developments, or the redevelopment of brownfield sites within cities. Healthy Placemaking includes a model chart that usefully shows how health impacts can be used to evaluate a development project.
Moreover, further research is needed to determine how different settlement patterns influence a range of possible health metrics, for instance direct evidence such as reduced days spent under medical care or prolonged life expectancies, or indirect evidence, including reduced vehicle miles travelled and improved air quality. Long-term studies might determine if exposure to a walkable, healthy environment when young establishes habits of activity that last into the adult years and provide mental and physical benefits in later life.
Fred London’s essay makes no claim that changes in the physical pattern of communities will automatically result in improved health, nor does it purport to solve all the problems presented by the modern metropolis. It does, however, provoke questions about how healthy placemaking principles could be applied to such essential and land-hungry components of modern urbanity as industrial areas, medical complexes and large sports venues.
From the perspective of an American writer, the proposals in Healthy Placemaking align well with Smart Growth policies and the planning ideas of New Urbanism. The five case studies from North America offer encouragement that central cities can be successfully modified to achieve a rich urbanity. However, it is the vast landscape of auto-dominated suburban sprawl, continuing to be built apace, that remains problematic both for human health and for the welfare of the larger environment, and presents the greatest challenge to the principles of healthy placemaking.
By placing its focus on human health, Healthy Placemaking not only provides important lessons on how to improve existing communities and design new ones, it also suggests a theme that runs through all scales of the urban area, from the local residential neighbourhood to the widest metropolitan region. It thus serves as a springboard toward an urban discipline that is as large, as complex, and as comprehensive as the metropolis itself.
Copies of the book can be purchased via RIBA Books - https://bit.ly/2TZ8fQF