How to make our cities healthier

Lots of places say they have green credentials or take a smart approach to the environment, but their claims don’t always stack up. To be truly liveable, cities need human-scale architecture and busy public spaces

Chinese cityscape: a high-rise under construction in Guangzhou. Photograph: Victorn/iStock/Getty

Chinese cityscape: a high-rise under construction in Guangzhou. Photograph: Victorn/iStock/Getty


In the next 15 years, according to one US expert, we will build more cities than we have done in all of history, which means that the approach we take – how ecofriendly those cities are, how smart they are and, perhaps above all, how mindful they are of their residents’ health and wellbeing – will have an enormous influence on the future of our societies and of our planet.

As the number of people on Earth grows, its urban centres are mushrooming, particularly in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the areas that are home to the world’s fastest-growing cities. And as their populations rise so do their buildings, which grow ever taller as they try to accommodate all the people who arrive each year to live in the likes of Bangalore, Lagos and Guangzhou.

But big and fast growing don’t necessarily mean well functioning: the 15 million people of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, inhabit the world’s second least liveable city, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Ranking for 2015. (Only Damascus, in war-torn Syria, fares worse; Lagos, in Nigeria, comes third.)

Suzanne Lennard is an American architect who has focused on how urban surroundings affect us: she and her late husband founded the International Making Cities Livable foundation. Lennard describes the densely populated high-rise cities of Asia, Africa and the Middle East as “an insidious form of overdevelopment driven by extreme capitalism”.

Their vertical sprawl is “based on an economic model that sees construction as the symbol of economic growth”, she said last month at her organisation’s conference, whose theme was sustainable, healthy, just cities and settlements.

“But the more high-rise we construct,” she added, “the more isolated and depressed we feel, the more we consume and the more dependent we are on the generators of GDP growth: big construction and big energy.”

Some companies are making big investments in the idea of the smart city. Cisco, the US technology firm, is promoting smart – which is to say computer based – solutions to parking, lighting, traffic, waste management and energy use, and some of them are being applied in Chicago, Barcelona and Adelaide, among other places. Philips, the Dutch giant, says its technology can help citizens, businesses, councils and other stakeholders work together better to shape their cities’ futures.

Others are working on an altogether larger scale. China, which has one of the biggest challenges of any country – between 2014 and 2050 its urban population will grow by 292 million people, according to the United Nations – has been building cities from scratch.

Its plans have included the construction of “ecocities” such as that designed for the edge of the existing city of Chengdu. The vision is for the 80,000 residents of this “Great City” to be able to do without cars, as everywhere will be within a 15-minute walk. All homes will also be within two minutes of a park. The new city will provide affordable housing, education and medical care, and its Chicago-based architects have designed it to use only half the energy and water, and produce only 10 per cent of the waste, of a conventional urban centre.

It’s easy to see how both this initiative and the solutions offered by Cisco and Philips can improve the way that cities work, and so make them nicer places to live, as well as, to varying degrees, more sustainable. But “smart city” technology often approaches problems largely from a business perspective – Cisco urges cities to “embrace digital innovation to create new revenue”.

And Lennard is cautious of China’s “instant cities”, which she says have been designed and built by global firms, and reproduced in diverse cultural settings, as if one size fits all, and she is unconvinced of their ecocredentials. “While promoted as ‘sustainably designed’, the primary goal seems to be economic.”

This global emphasis on high-rise has increased inequality, Lennard says. “As these buildings are inherently more expensive to construct, high-rise is most suitable to luxury condos, and the vast profits obtainable inflate adjacent land prices.”

She cites Vancouver, in Canada, where foreign investment in high-rise condominiums has made downtown unaffordable for lower-income citizens. In some buildings 75 per cent of units belong to absentee owners, she says. “This jeopardises the economic viability of grocery stores and other businesses dependent on a local residential population, further risking the neighbourhood’s liveability.” It’s a pattern observable around the world.

So what alternatives do advocates of liveable cities propose? The academics, architects and planners at Lennard’s conference promote “human-scale architecture, mixed-use urban spaces and public spaces where people gather for markets, festivals and outdoor community life”. These are, they point out, hallmarks of older European cities.

Lennard outlines three principles of a green, liveable city. “The urban environment must ensure human sustainability: good social and physical health for all; economic sustainability: a city which ensures a living wage for all and does not enrich the few at the expense of the majority; and ecological sustainability: an urban form that does not deplete the earth, cause massive pollution and climate change in the construction process and that does not require vast energy resources to build and maintain.”

Sensitively connecting schools, workplaces, shops, community facilities and green spaces with walkways, cycle paths and public transport must become a key part of any city – a concept that Irish local authorities have begun to embrace.

Aidan ffrench of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council told the conference, “While urban green space is still not a statutory public service at local- government level in Ireland, there is a new focus on community placemaking” – where people who use the space drive the agenda before it is designed – “and urban horticulture in Ireland.”

Michael Mehaffy of Sustasis, a US sustainable-development foundation – he’s the expert who says that over the next 15 years we will build more cities than we have done in all of history – emphasises the need for people with different lifestyles to coexist in high-density, low-rise, mixed-use urban spaces. “People can organise themselves when living and working in buildings of a human scale with access to a network of public spaces,” he says. “It’s about the intermingling of private and public space.”

George Ferguson, a former mayor of Bristol, and Sven von Ungern-Sternberg, who spent 20 years overseeing city planning in Freiburg, in Germany, told the International Making Cities Livable conference how their cities have built up their green credentials.

Freiburg aims to be climate neutral, using only renewable energy, by 2050. Bristol became the UK’s first European Green Capital, in 2015, because of its energy efficiency, renewable-energy use, transport improvements and commitment to a low-carbon economy.

Another aspect of this new urbanism involves projects that put classical architecture at the heart of the design. The Russian architect Maxim Atayants, who has also designed the city’s new judicial quarter, using a mix of formal and informal versions of neoclassicism to complement existing court buildings, told the conference about a project on an old Olympics site in St Petersburg that is bucking the trend of Russian high-rise apartments.

“Our project returns to classical buildings, with courtyards with playgrounds, street landscapes and underground car parking. We have a pedestrian street for shops – no supermarkets – and we have even diverted a river into the urban space for pleasure,” he said.

María Sánchez Godoy and Pedro Godoy, two Guatemalan architects, explained their work on the new, classically designed city of Cayalá. “We realised the importance of public buildings as reference points in the city, so we started by building the first traditional church to be built in Guatemala in the 21st century. We then designed nine urban quarters, all in walking distance of shops, cinema, town hall and the church, with a big public square in the centre,” Sánchez Godoy said.

It is, they believe, a model for developing liveable cities around the world.

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