Cities are killing us

But we CAN make them green, healthy and inclusive, emphasized world renowned experts and civic leaders at the 52nd International Making Cities Livable Conference on Achieving Green, Healthy Cities. This conference was invited to Bristol, UK as one of the key events celebrating Bristol’s title as 2015 European Green Capital.

Opening the conference was a short film by the distinguished former Dean and Professor of Urban Planning at Venice University who had welcomed delegates to the 1st IMCL Conference in Venice in 1985 on behalf of the City of Venice. He reminded participants of Henry Lennard’s important message, to understand how good urban public spaces like the Venetian campo generate community and create a high quality of social life for old and young, and he called on delegates to save Venice from the devastating impact of mass tourism that is destroying the life of this city. To view, click here.

In her introduction to the conference, Dr. Suzanne Lennard, IMCL co-founder and Director emphasized that ecological devastation, destruction of social capital, and increasing inequality are exacerbated by the “global high-rise construction fever that has gripped half the world’s cities”. However, “if we adopt the time-tested principles of true urbanism, facilitating community social life, access to nature, independent mobility for all, and a human scale, mixed-use built environment that enhances a sense of well-being in the public realm, then we can achieve healthy human, economic and ecological sustainability. It is not rocket science”, she asserted. “These healthy city-making principles have been around for centuries.”

Today’s Failures

Key to our urban problems is the fact that massive investment is poured into private property and there is too little investment in the public realm. Speaker after speaker stressed the improvements that need to be made to the public realm, to make it hospitable for walking, biking, and social life.

The Danish architect Jan Gehl, responsible for the redesign of Times Square, and a champion of human-scale development said architects “have forgotten how to plan and design for people”. Jan Gehl was awarded the 2015 IMCL Lewis Mumford Award “for his inspirational leadership in improving the quality of urban life by designing Cities for People – pedestrians and cyclists.”

Speakers emphasized that Modernist planning has prioritized the automobile, resulting in a public realm that in most cities around the world is unsuitable for humans, causing respiratory diseases, social isolation, and the epidemic of childhood obesity and related chronic diseases - high cholesterol and blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, sleep apnea, asthma and liver disease – never associated with childhood before.

To satisfy the huge demand for growth and profits, a value system that prioritizes economic growth over health and sustainability focuses on an insidious form of over-development that University of British Columbia Professor of Architecture Patrick Condon terms “vertical sprawl”.

Far more sustainable than high rise downtown and along transit corridors combined with suburban sprawl, Condon demonstrates, is to have high density 5-8 story urban fabric over a larger area of the city, as you see in such cities as Paris, Barcelona and Munich. These cities retain their human scale and livability while achieving a vastly higher density than high-rise cities such as Vancouver, Chicago, or New York.

Commodification of Cities

Michael Mehaffy, a researcher at Delft University of Technology, told the conference that the world is on track to create more urban areas in the next 50 years than in the last 5,000 – and he blamed architects and developers for creating unhealthy, unlivable and resource-wasting “commodities, not places”.  “If architects were doctors,” Mehaffy stated,  “many of us would probably be imprisoned for malpractice.”

This accelerated growth that Pope Francis, in his Encyclical “Laudato Si” calls “rapidification”, has taken hold of cities around the world – including Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as Australia and the Americas. In Indian cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, overinvestment in private property, and underinvestment in the public realm are increasing health inequality to such an extent that these cities may never become healthy environments, according to Prathima Manohar, Founder and Editor in Chief of The Urban Vision, and contributing columnist for The Times of India, and The Wall Street Journal.

The Conference welcomed the Pope’s analysis of the problems in his Encyclical. For example (56): “In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.”

Social Sustainability

The conference emphasized that we must first consider children, elders, and the poor as we re-plan our cities. Only then can we achieve urban environments that are healthy for all humans, and for the planet. Lamine Mahdjoubi from the University of the West of England, Bristol stressed that outdoor play positively benefits children’s health and wellbeing, and that informal play on safe streets confers greater physical and social health benefits than ‘Ghettoised Play’ on playgrounds.  Speakers from New Zealand (Claire Freeman of the University of Otago), and Australia, (Ray Green from the University of Melbourne and Fiona Andrews from Deakin University) emphasized the importance of children’s access to biodiversity, and the impact of neighborhood design.

Phil Stafford, Professor and Director of the Center on Aging and Community at Indiana University also emphasized that elders need the social contact and access to resources, shops and services that a human scale, compact mixed-use urban neighborhood with a lively public realm can provide. This issue was explored further by Patrick Doherty and Aisling Costello from WHO’s Age Friendly Cities and Communities Initiative in Ireland, Alan De La Torre, from Portland State University, OR, USA and Helen Manchester, from Bristol University; and in a panel with Dan Burden, Director of Innovations & Inspiration, Blue Zones,  Minneapolis, MN, Bruce LaRue, President of Chambers Bay Institute, University Place, WA, USA, and Morel Fourman, Founder and CEO, Gaiasoft Group, London. Grant Donald from Silk Tree International, Shanghai also discussed the value of good park design for elders in China.

The importance for social health of accessible urban spaces and market places was discussed by presenters from Sweden, Indonesia, The Netherlands, Italy and the UK. In sessions addressing social sustainability (with Marc Tarca, Paul Cozens and Jenny Donovan from Australia), and in the final workshop, delegates emphasized that the poor must be integrated in society with housing that does not stigmatize them, opportunities for employment at a living wage, and by an inclusive public realm that fosters a sense of community and shared well-being.

Models of Green, Healthy Cities

We CAN design healthy, green, equitable cities if we prioritize these values. Dr. Sven von Ungern-Sternberg, former Freiburg Mayor for urban and regional planning and Governor for the State of Süd-Baden, Germany, who was responsible for guiding Europe’s most sustainable new urban neighborhoods, Rieselfeld and Vauban, explained how Freiburg was able to increase its network of separate bike paths and lanes from 29 kilometers in length in 1972 to a 682 kilometer network in 2012. Together with traffic calmed streets, bike parking, and integrating all transportation systems, this has resulted in 52% of all trips in Freiburg that are now made by walking and biking.

Outstanding models of “Green and Blue in the Healthy City” were presented by Torgeir Esig Soerensen, Head of Parks and Streets for the City of Stavanger, Norway, and Christine Bräm, Executive Director, Office of Parks and Open Spaces for the City of Zurich, Switzerland.

Conference participants heard from Deputy Mayor Tjasa Ficko how her city of Ljubljana, Slovenia had been awarded the title of 2016 Green Capital of Europe for their achievements to date and plans for the future. Ambitious recycling programs and riverfront improvements were among the major accomplishments for this beautiful historic city. Peter Webber, Emiritus Professor of Architecture at the University of Sydney, Australia discussed how Sydney had gradually evolved into a green city, and Circe Monteiro, Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at the Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil presented Parque Capibaribe in Recife. More technical details of green infrastructure were provided by Elinor Huggett, from Max Fordham in London, and Lee Fithian, from the University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK.

James Brainard, the first six-term Mayor of the City of Carmel, Indiana, explained how he was able to create a beautiful new City Center based on classical architecture and European concepts of the traditional city. Carmel was listed as the #1 Place to Live in America by Money magazine because of its high quality of life. The population has grown from 25,000 to almost 80,000 in the last 12 years.

Kevin McCloud, British designer, writer and television presenter best known for his series Grand Designs, presented his highly sustainable residential housing project HAB Housing, and Simon Conibear from the Duchy of Cornwall discussed and led a tour of Poundbury, the sustainable traditional neighborhood being developed by the Duchy. Both projects include shared equity housing and an emphasis on a high quality of the public spaces. And Hugh Petter, Director of Adam Urbanism discussed a new neighborhood for the Duchy being designed for Newquay, Cornwall.

Barra MacRuari, Bristol’s Strategic Director for Place discussed Place Making in Bristol, while Ben Hamilton-Baillie presented his innovative work in “Shared Space Street Design”.

IMCL Competition on Designing for Green Healthy Cities

The IMCL Design Competition contained large and small projects from around the world that promote socially, culturally, ecologically and physically healthy built environments.

The Honor Award for Built Projects went to Estudio Urbano & Léon Krier for the new town of Cayalá in Guatemala that reflects the beauty of the public realm and the architectural heritage of Guatemala’s best historic cities.

The Honor Award for Proposed Projects was presented to 
Ettore Maria Mazzola, architect, urbanist, and professor at the University of Notre Dame in Rome, who demonstrated that a dysfunctional neighborhood, ZEN in Palermo, originally constructed to Modernist principles, can be redesigned to be healthy. Moreover, the reconstruction can not only increase social, cultural and physical health and well-being; it can also provide a process whereby the economic wealth of the community is increased.

Even a small scale design project can potentially make a huge difference in the lives of residents. The jury decided to present a second Honor Award for the proposed design of Baltimore Urban Farmstead Initiative at the heart of Sandtown, a poverty stricken and crime ridden neighborhood in Baltimore. The project is designed by the Sustainable Communities Institute for the client Elder C.W. Harris, Strength to Love II.  

Research on Environmental Impacts on Health

Speakers from Australia (Susan Thompson, Director, Healthy Built Environments Program, University of New South Wales), the UK (Victoria Pinoncely from the Royal Town Planning Institute) and Spain (Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, Research Professor, Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, Barcelona) reviewed research showing how the built and natural environment affects health. Marcus Grant and Hugh Barton from the University of the West of England launched their newly published book, Planning for Health and Well-Being that presents research from around the world. The importance for health of Pedestrian Pathways was explored in depth by members of the Worldwide Universities Network, brought together by Bristol University’s multi-disciplinary and international research group. Walkability principles and wayfinding tools were presented by speakers from London and New York.

The challenge of “Fighting Climate Change through Healthy Urban Design” was addressed by Professor Ivo Wenzler, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands, Hugh Atkinson, London South Bank University, and Jay Storfer, Senior Policy Analyst at Health Canada, Ottawa. “Livability and Sustainability Systems” were discussed by Rick Phillips, Director of Urban Design at HNTB, California, USA, and Angela Ruiz del Portal, Cardiff University, Wales. Important research on effects of air pollution and urban noise on health were presented by James Longhurst, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Environment and Sustainability at the University of the West of England, Bristol, Yi Gong, Cardiff University’s Sustainable Places Research Institute, and Luca Dellatorre, Principal Consultant at the Institute of Acoustics, London.

Achieving Livable Cities

There is a global competition to achieve the title of a “livable city”. Representatives from the City of Auckland discussed their journey towards becoming the “world’s most livable city”, and Michael Scott from Melbourne claimed that title for Melbourne. But cities that vie for this distinction must beware the dangers involved – overinvestment of global capital in high-rise buildings that destroy the public realm and diminish community social life.

Delegates agreed that the goal of achieving healthy, sustainable and equitable cities cannot be achieved by professionals in one field alone. It requires collaborative effort, and insights from many disciplines. Models of “Visioning” and “Community Participation” in urban planning were presented, including models involving children in shaping their neighborhood. Changes need to be led by community members who are closest to the problems and thus often the real experts.  Discussions and workshops demonstrated that while problems are universal, solutions must draw on local cultural, social and geographic conditions.

This unique conference involved representatives from 40 countries in 5 continents, bringing together civic leaders with experts in sustainability, public health, children and the elderly, architecture, urban design, planning, transportation planning, landscape architecture, and economic development. This international dialogue ended with a morning Workshop pulling together conference delegates' concensus on the most important Principles for Achieving Green, Healthy Cities.

The interdisciplinary discussion, dialogue and networking were enhanced by a rich social program of receptions at the Bristol Museum, Goldney Hall gardens and the Watershed, lunches at AtBristol, and the Awards Dinner on board SS Great Britain. For this hospitality we all warmly thank Mayor Ferguson, Bristol City Council, The University of Bristol, The University of the West of England and Bristol 2015.

The conference embraced Pope Francis as a true and visionary leader at this time of crisis when we are searching for sound approaches to remaking the built environment in a healthy and sustainable manner. His Encyclical deals with principles that must guide urban planning, community participation, rebuilding community, placing children, elders and the poor first in our planning, quality of life, valuing the common good, rejecting the consumerist approach to city planning, building in harmony with nature, and maintaining a cultural sense of identity.

To quote #143: “Together with the patrimony of nature, there is also an historic, artistic and cultural patrimony which is likewise under threat. This patrimony is a part of the shared identity of each place and a foundation upon which to build a habitable city. It is not a matter of tearing down and building new cities, supposedly more respectful of the environment yet not always more attractive to live in. Rather, there is a need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place, thus preserving its original identity. Ecology, then, also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense. More specifically, it calls for greater attention to local cultures when studying environmental problems, favouring a dialogue between scientific-technical language and the language of the people. Culture is more than what we have inherited from the past; it is also, and above all, a living, dynamic and participatory present reality, which cannot be excluded as we rethink the relationship between human beings and the environment.”

George Ferguson, Mayor of Bristol, said in summary, that Bristol had been very fortunate to have been recognized for their achievements in making Bristol green and healthy, and for their enthusiastic embrace of further challenges ahead. “However”, he admitted, “we have some work to do here in Bristol.  You are doing something very important in this conference and that is to share lessons about what is working and not working around the world.”