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How Urban Design Can Save Us All

Millions of people waste myriad hours a day sitting in a car commuting to and from work, school, and everywhere else. The hours many westerners spend on a solitary commute speak to the abysmal urban planning that created the cities where home, work, and recreational spaces are isolated, all a car ride away from each other. Today’s urban and suburban spaces are poorly designed, leading to a decrease in social interaction, community involvement, and sustainable living. Increases have been seen in areas such as social and physical isolation and in obesity and other health issues (National Center for Health Statistics., 2017). The great problem with many modern cities is their design, a design with cars, not people, in mind; a design that fails to take into account how places are used by the public, and how people interact. Interaction with one’s surroundings is uncommon in many major cities filled with dirty pavements and uninspiring architecture; but in those where art and beauty are deliberately added, such as in the spaces transformed by artist Joe Hill, passers-by are able to see and interact with the mundane in a new way (Joe Hill, n.d.). The transformation of urban spaces is possible through the reimagining of their uses to encourage interactions with one’s environment and with others. Technology such as M.I.T. Media Lab’s DoppelLab makes it possible to understand how people use a space, and allows for the augmentation of a space to better suit users (Dublon et al., 2014). The potential of technologies like DoppelLab to help the urban environment begs the question: To what extent can technologically advanced intentional design better the public and environmental conditions of cities? Conscientious urban planning has the ability to create smart-cities, those which use technology to encourage social interaction, public health, and environmental sustainability.

The rise in obesity and respiratory issues in urban areas can be attributed in part to car dependency, which came about due to the great amount of urban sprawl that led to a rise in single-use areas (gated communities, isolated shopping centers, etc.), areas that require residents to drive to get to wherever it is they must go (Sainsbury et al., 2013). The physical distance between homes and workplaces mean that for many families, cars are a necessity. This phenomenon has come about due to many westerners’ beliefs about what makes up economic freedom and happiness. The idea of owning a large home and car constitutes freedom for many westerners, but such homes are generally only affordable in the suburbs, where quick developments mean that homes are cheaply made and are isolated from public spaces such as parks, museums, and shopping areas (Bednar-Friedl et al., 2011). Such environments, in which individuals rely on automobiles, are obesogenic in nature, causing residents to gain weight simply by residing in them, and possibly shortening lives by up to 4 years (Mackenbach et al., 2014). Poor planning also means that many of these areas lack sidewalks, confining residents to their homes and cars, restricting their ability to walk about their communities (Guthman, 2013). Surveys of residents of obesogenic urban environments say that they would prefer to walk more often, but that it is not an effective way of getting around, or a pleasant one, due to unkempt and isolated walking paths along busy roads (Roué Le Gall et al., 2018). The fundamental problem with how these cities are built is that they take outdated ideas of what residents want into account, and forgo the reality that car-centered planning decreases quality of life.

The negative health impacts of contemporary cities stretch beyond obesity, with car-centered cities increasing 〖CO〗_2 emissions at previously unseen rates (Calthorpe, 2017). The increase in carbon emissions possess health, environmental, and economic risks due to the negative effects it has on respiratory illnesses, global warming, and healthcare spending. Respiratory diseases and infections are now one of the leading causes of death in the United States, and has been climbing in rank since the industrial revolution and the introduction of car-centered cities (National Center for Health Statistics., 2017). In California alone, it is estimated that with an increase in walkable city planning and sustainable development, $1.66 billion can be saved in healthcare costs by 2035 (Calthorpe, 2017). City planners are increasingly looking towards technology to understand how to better create a space that people will want to interact with, and are beginning to use location data to assess what areas are most frequented and liked by residents; developers are also using games and augmented reality to encourage people to walk throughout their cities (Boulos et al., 2017). This integration of artistic technology into the urban environment for the purposes of encouraging physical activity and better health outcomes is still in its infancy, but they have an immense amount of potential since these products are economically beneficial to the creators while still aiding consumers and the environment in the quest for a cleaner and more active city.

With pedestrian friendly urban design, the environment stands to benefit from far more than decreased car use. The high density developments of major cities often degrades an area’s natural beauty by using environmentally harmful materials to build and shape the land to better suit the developers needs at the time. The integration of the natural environment into the city has the capacity to better the health and happiness of residents while improving a city’s capacity to generate its own renewable energy (Lepczyk et al., 2017). It is critical to reduce sprawl, which spreads without a design conscientious of future implications and contributes to the loss of agricultural land and biodiversity, while encouraging environmentally conscious planning of compact cities (European Commission — Directorate General for Regional Policy, 2011). Compact cities reduce energy needs, while facilitating the unification of the manmade and the natural by allowing greater space for green areas. For instance, M.I.T.’s DoppelLab partnered with Tidmarsh Farms in Massachusetts to “measure temperature, humidity, moisture, light, motion, wind, sound, tree sap flow and, in some cases, levels of various chemicals,” helping to ensure the efficient energy use and management of spaces (Dublon et al., 2014). DoppelLab and similar innovations have the potential to inform developers and designers of how to best make use of a space and how to enhance it for prime environmental benefit while allowing for people to interact with the space regularly.

A major barrier in the use of technology to augment established cities is that many current metropolitan areas are seen as largely unalterable by residents and planners, who may decide that it is simply inefficient to waste funds on technology that will not be able to do much for a city (Marić et al., 2017). However, it is shortsighted to say that cities are stagnant areas, when there exist myriad examples across much of the world of places that successfully unite ancient architecture with modern building projects. Cities such as London, home to Westminster Abbey (built in 960 and rebuilt in 1517) and the modern Shard (built in 2012), show that the old and new can convive, bringing complexity and artistry into a city for the cultural benefit of the residents. Moreover, the emerging field of material ecology, pioneered by M.I.T. professor Neri Oxman, demonstrates that environmentally conscious design in which form, function, and material are all interwoven is currently possible thanks to modern computational form-generation and digital fabrication (Oxman et al., 2015). The separation of form, matter, and function have created cities in which cheap and repetitive design is the norm, with little thought given as to how the space will evolve to suit its purpose and environment. With the rise of design technology and environmental research, it is easier than ever to create urban green spaces that promote biodiversity by unifying the natural with the manmade without sacrificing beauty or convenience.

Green spaces in cities help the residents just as much as, if not more than, they help the environment. In one study, psychologist Rachel Kaplan, PhD found that those who lived in cities with a greater amount of natural green spaces liked their jobs more, felt more satisfied with life, and benefitted from better health than their counterparts in bleaker cities (Clay, 2001). In cities where the natural environment was artistically integrated into the urban architecture, people reported feeling more at ease and more comfortable in the space thanks to the aesthetic appeal of the area (Lopreiato, 2014). In some major U.S. cities, smartphone apps have allowed city residents and visitors to identify the best times to visit parks and green spaces, especially when they are feeling stressed or are fatigued from the monotonous scenery (Bakolis et al., 2018). The integration of technology and artistry into the natural environment of urban spaces has the power to relieve people of the physical and mental fatigue caused by the uninspiring and hostile design of many contemporary cities.

The lifeless and repetitive design of contemporary urban areas separates people, discouraging residents from interacting with each other as well as their environment. From transportation (primarily personal automobiles) to housing space (people of similar socio-economic status are clustered together), the urban sprawl that dominates many cities has negated the purpose of cities: to bring people of all types together for the benefit of societies (Siljanoska et al., 2017). Compact development allows for people of different backgrounds to interact with each other on a neutral plane, an area made for everyone’s enjoyment and enrichment. As can be seen in areas of Barcelona, a city that has been evolving for centuries and continues to do so, walkable and interesting environments (those with a variety of architectural and artistic styles) help create positive inner-neighborhood dynamics in which residents report feeling peaceful and happy while showing signs of greater vitality and overall physical and mental health (Marquet at al., 2015). While cities like Barcelona have the advantage of being established and settled when walking was the primary, if not only, way to get around, that does not mean that modern cities and new developments cannot focus on the community they serve and the environment they are situated in. New technology has made it possible to map the ways in which pedestrians move throughout public spaces and buildings, allowing developers to see what works and what to augment in their design of new areas (Southworth, 2005). Compact development, with streets containing homes, shops, parks, and accessible and clean public transport give people freedom of movement throughout their communities and turns cities into complex structures rather than isolated, interchangeable parts.

However, urban planners must keep in mind that their designs must be coupled with the continued involvement of the local government and citizenry to maintain the desired effect of interactivity with one’s environment and fellow residents. In London, an evolving and highly walkable city first build centuries ago, the walking rate has fallen considerably in the last half-century (Tanner, 2004). This alarming development led to a government plan for the creation of attractive and pedestrian friendly city spaces that people would want to frequent without feeling unsafe or isolated. Research conducted in London following some minor implementation of government plans showed that in aesthetically appealing areas with low automobile congestion allowed for greater positive verbal and non-verbal communication between strangers of different socio-economic statuses and beliefs, not to mention the environmental and physiological benefits of lower levels of carbon emissions in certain areas (Middleton, 2018). The decrease of walking rates in London shows how the work of urban planners and governments is far from over when an area is built, but the subsequent improvement of certain areas indicates that no space is hopeless, and that conscientious investment in the social development of an area has countless benefits for the citizenry and the environment.

These new developments that integrate beautiful and functional design with environmental sustainability prove multiple times over that their benefits outweigh the admittedly high costs of implementation, yet these solutions are often implemented in wealthier sectors of cities, while abandoning poorer areas that suffer from adverse effects of pollution and bad urban design at higher rates (Villanueva et al., 2017). Designers and developers must be encouraged to build sustainable housing that does not destroy hundreds of acres and necessitate the building of highways systems to connect the development to public areas and the city center. Further policy change is necessary to encourage the development and augmentation of public transportation, green spaces, and pedestrian-centered areas in economically disadvantaged areas, as well as throughout cities.

There is no snap solution for the decades of horrid urban design suffered by countless cities throughout the west and the rest of the world. However, myriad steps are well within reach; amongst them: pedestrian-centered design, enhancing and investing in mass transit, beautifying urban areas with art and green spaces, and placing the social welfare of city residents above all in local policy making and implantation. With the use of innovative technology and greater investment in urban planning, cities can become hubs of culture and health, working with the environment instead of suppressing it, to make a better world for the millions of people living in modern cities today.

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