​Building the ​Healthy ​City


Among architects, planners and civic leaders there has been a fundamental reassessment of how urban planning impacts human health, as well as the soil, water and living things with which the city co-exists.

Looking at the city as a human habitat, urban planners and civic leaders are working together to create and sustain a more robust urban environment, one that incorporates efficient public transit, walkable neighborhoods, parks, trails and other amenities that invite outdoor activity and recreation. Urban greening and urban agriculture have the potential to promote better health, even helping to alleviate depression and other psychological disorders.

While the health of those who live in urban environments is affected by a myriad of factors, individual physical activity is key—and city streets and sidewalks can either promote or inhibit walking, running or cycling. The World Health Organization identifies four environmental factors that inhibit physical activity in our cities:
• Violence
• Heavy traffic
• Poor air quality
• Lack of pedestrian friendly infrastructure, as well as parks and recreational facilities

At the same time, those who live in high-density urban areas are often healthier than their surburban and rural counterparts as the city lends itself to walking. Residents are often able to walk to a corner market, the playground, the transit stop or even to the office itself. Ideally, our cities are safe, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly places with a range of mixed-use commercial areas and plenty of green space and fresh air.

In fact, unlike a decade ago, start-ups, co-working groups and established companies alike are choosing to locate offices at high-density sites that offer access to public transportation—or, to lease space at office parks with lots of green space, walking trails and eco-friendly commuter programs. Pinterest, Twitter, Airbnb and Zynga have recently chosen to locate new offices in San Francisco rather than in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, at least in part to take advantage of the city’s technology talent, culture and walkability. Twitter is reportedly working with the city to improve transit and create new dedicated bike lanes.

Among architects, planners and civic leaders there has been a fundamental reassessment of how urban planning impacts human health, as well as the soil, water and living things with which the city co-exists. Is it important? Yes. By the year 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. Is it complex? Yes. A city is as complex as a living organism and requires multiple strategies to remain or become sustainable. Among those strategies:
• Keep cities compact and plan dense, mixed-use neighborhoods that promote walking
• Provide fast, reliable and energy-efficient public transportation, in which pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is a component
• Protect parks, urban agriculture and other “green” aspects of the urban ecology
• Protect riparian corridors and waterfront sites (“blue” spaces)
• Fund educational, cultural, recreational and health care facilities
• Conserve resources: e.g., use household waste to fuel power plants; use storm water runoff to irrigate lawns and landscaping
• Make resource conservation and renewable energy part of city policy
• Address sustainable building practices (buildings represent 40% of the world’s energy consumption)

The entities that rank U.S. cities as “smart” and/or “green” have different methodologies and criteria. However, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and New York City are consistently selected for doing the most to become healthy, sustainable cities.

To quote an article in Fast Company, “Smart cities find ways to become more efficient, to deliver more services via mobile technology, to optimize existing infrastructure, and to leverage citizen participation to create better land-use decisions and to break down bureaucracy in order to stimulate a creative, entrepreneurial economy. In short, smart cities are innovative cities.” In 2013, Seattle moved up to the #1 spot with San Francisco and Boston tied for the #2 spot in Fast Company ’s rankings.

Interestingly, Fast Company ’s description of “Smart Cities” could easily translate into language appropriate to Smart Companies who find ways to become more efficient, to do more via mobile technology, to optimize existing infrastructure, and to leverage employee engagement and collaboration in order to reach better decisions and stimulate a creative, entrepreneurial culture.

The American College of Sports Medicine publishes an American Fitness Index that ranks healthy, fitness-friendly cities according to the following criteria: bans on smoking in public places, new parks, walking trails and bike trails, and a population that prioritizes healthy habits and ranks low in obesity and cardiovascular disease. The top cities: Minneapolis-St. Paul, Washington, D.C., Portland and San Francisco.

What puts Minneapolis-St. Paul at the top of the list? A higher percentage of city land area set aside as parkland, more farmers’ markets per capita, a higher percentage of people who use public transportation, bicycle or walk to work, and a greater number of trails, playgrounds, tennis courts and other recreation areas per capita.

The U.S. and Canada Green City Index is a study of 27 cities conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by Siemens with an advisory panel of global experts in urban environmental sustainability. While San Francisco takes the top spot for overall performance, New York City ranks number one in land use thanks to its high density, green space and projects like MillionTreesNYC—which has planted 949,000 new trees (and counting) since 2007.

Many cities and smaller communities promote urban gardening with the result that a wealth of fruit trees, vegetables and herbs are greening vacant lots, schoolyards and even rooftops, such as Twitter’s new San Francisco building and Chicago’s City Hall. In Pittsburgh, the GreenUp program provides residents with soil and plants to “green up” vacant lots—transforming more than 100 lots in this way. In New York, an abundance of urban gardens and farmers’ markets supply fresh produce to some of Manhattan’s trendiest restaurants. In fact, local sourcing and greenmarket items on the menu have become more the rule than the exception among New York chefs.

In the fall of 2014, a free tree give-away sponsored by MillionTreesNYC featured fruit trees with edible fruits: peaches, pears, figs, almonds and apples. More than 4,000 new fruit trees found homes in backyards and gardens in all five boroughs, a large-scale planting event designed to enhance the urban landscape and enable residents to “forage” from their own property. In conclusion, we might note that, as human beings, we evolved and adapted to natural stimuli such as sunlight, weather, plants, animals and landscapes, which remain essential contexts for our functioning, health and survival. Today’s urbanites live in a built world with perhaps a swathe of green, but chances are, we have not fully adapted to skyscrapers, freeways and mini-malls. These busy environments can clutter the mind, while nature tends to let the mind rest, replenishing energy and helping to restore equanimity. More and more, thoughtful architects and designers are incorporating parks, gardens, trees, small landscapes and other natural elements to create more sustainable urban environments.