by Karina Descartin
In the late 1990s, the summer before my senior year as an undergraduate in public health in the Philippines, I volunteered and participated in a summer immersion program through the university’s Volunteer Service Corps. Our group of eight medical and nursing students lived for almost five weeks with indigenous tribe families in the mountains of Bukidnon on the big island of Mindanao, south of Manila. Our task was to design and implement health programs for the small villages we visited. That summer was an entirely different life for us, city kids all. The homes we visited were far (sometimes whole mountains) apart. Walking for hours from point A to B was the norm. Electricity was rare and the physical and healthcare infrastructure was primitive, mostly inadequate to handle the communities’ needs. Extended family groups typically lived together in small clusters of modest homes, which left little room for privacy but reinforced the supportive and closely knit kinship networks that were part of the fabric of life. Local folks looked you in the eye unhurried, offered their best crops when sharing their meals, and embraced us with a warmth that shone through initial shyness. They laughed easily and their smiles lingered. Even during nights when they shared stories of sorrows and fear, I had a feeling they knew they’d be okay. Afterwards, when I returned for my final year at the university, the world looked different. I’d seen first-hand that even in a context of tremendous lack of external resources — and the near absence of the health support systems that I’d been learning about in my classes — the always-present embrace of a whole community built around the connectedness and sharing of family and friends could boost well-being from the inside-out.
When I started to look at the connection between built environment and health, I found Dr. Richard Jackson’s (2012) book Designing Healthy Communities. As a physician and Master of Public Health student, I immediately connected with the words.
Jackson (2012) wrote that in the context of love and charity as residents of our will, the built environment is a manifestation of our intention and imagination. Further, in the context of genuine giving, he added that we get more than we give from truly “great built environments” (Jackson & Sinclair, 2012). But that great built environment bunkers us away from the din of social activity, what good is a custom home without a community to share it? Sometimes people can move mountains but they cannot move concrete walls without a building permit.
So when Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed said in his TED City 2.0 Talk that “cities are where hope meets the street,” I agree. But I have to add that, often times, hope meets mountain paths and dusty village roads far from the city. Hope does not care whether we settle in on rolling hills or urban sprawl. Perhaps then, we should ask, where does this hope come from? Perhaps it’s not from the city street or rural lane, in particular, but wherever we are. It is our social connectiveness.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts, we make our world.
Christopher Young, Buddha Quotes, 2012
The directed purpose of the built environment depends on our intent. A long time ago, older cottages on tree lined streets had porches. Remember when people actually congregated on that porch to talk and yell at friends as they passed by. What are we trying to accomplish with strained decks in the back of our homes? Is our current goal to build and connect? Or is it to fortify and defend and isolate (Caldeira, 1996)? Isolation over the long term has been found to be detrimental to health. But when the heart is taken out of meeting friends by chance or making sure that a neighbor is okay today, we have another disease altogether. We have to work harder in establishing co-presence in our networks to actually stare another person in the eyeballs (Kadushin, 2012). What is co-presence in networks, you say? Sometimes people just share the same space and nothing more bonds them. That is known in networks as co-location. But if we hope to assure that built environment will not impede our ability to connect, co-presence is in order. If there is a neighborhood yard sale to unload unused Stairmasters and bound books, this is space with a social purpose for neighbors and bargain shoppers on the prowl, no matter how fleeting the communion may be.
Process and System
Community is ingrained for some (co-presence). For others, they live only in a zip code (co-location).
– Michele Battle-Fisher– Urban Greenspace
Cities of walls do not strengthen citizenship but rather contribute to its corrosion.
– Teresa P. R. Caldeira, Fortified Enclaves
We need open, inclusive exchange of ideas that will breathe fresh new life into this city. We need this. And when and if we get it, then the walls will come tumbling down.
– Dennis Dalton, TED City 2.0
Rydin et al. (2012), Lopez (2012), Rao et al. (2007), Kochitzky et al. (2006), and urban planner Gregor Wiltchko suggest that urban planning must be multidisciplinary and collaborative. This is key in ensuring that a common language is spoken among various disciplines and interests involved in defining our environments. Who has actually attended an urban planning public forum? I hear …silence. Wiltschko further puts this position in perspective— “not so much to design the site or the right area but designing the right process that collaboration can really happen.” Do you agree?
If we want to build something that best fits competing needs and makes more people just a little bit happier — perhaps allowing that frustrated driver above to get home in reasonable time even while the slow-pedaling cyclist in the next lane gets to enjoy the scenery. It takes more than a clever plan or smart siting by some architect, planner or engineer. This is parallel to Battle-Fisher (2013), Jackson & Sinclair (2012), and Caldeira’s (1996) explicit language of community, openness, freedom, belonging, and possibilities for people.
Cities, built by humans are complex systems (Rydin et al., 2012). In complex systems, health begets health (Battle-Fisher, 2013, April 5). In complex systems, we not only learn collaboration and participation, but we learn balance that is always under the threat of imbalance (Jackson & Sinclair, 2012; Carlson et al., 2012; Jackson, 2003; Mitchell, 2009; Miller & Page, 2007; Lidwell, Holden, & Butler, 2010; Luke & Stamatakis, 2012).
I wandered the streets in my vicinity to capture some of the many ways that intentions and process have manifested in the built environment of this city. Come walk with me to see for yourself…
The Cannery along Third Street, left, is a former factory repurposed as residential lofts and commercial storefronts in Downtown Dayton. The building on the right, roughly from the same period, is still an active (if underutilized) industrial facility.
The vacant Lindsey Building along Main Street. The building is boarded up with lively artwork that keeps the façade vibrant.
As humans, we create — we build. We may build structures — soaring art or hulking defense. As humans, we are responsive to our internal as well as our external environments. As humans, we have the propensity to connect, to share, to exchange, to receive, to give, to develop, to innovate, to thrive… or to wilt away.
Battle-Fisher, M. (2013). Urban Greenspace and Collective Health Ownership. Mindful Nature, 6(3), 33-35.
Battle-Fisher, M. (2013, April 5). The participant observer and engagement in the routine [Web Log Post]. Retrieved from https://orgcomplexity.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/the-participant-observer-and-engagement-in-the-routine/
Caldeira, T. P. R. (1996). Fortified Enclaves: The New Urban Segregation. Public Culture, 8, 303-328.
Carlson, C., Semra, A., Gardner, K., & Rogers, S. (2012). Complexity in Built Environment, Health,and Destination Walking: A Neighborhood-Scale Analysis. Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 89(2), 270-284.
Dalton, D. (2013, September 20). Session 2: Reinventing Urban Experience. [TED City 2.0] Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/pages/attend_tedcity2
Jackson, R. J. & Sinclair, S. (2012). Designing healthy communities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Jackson, R. J. (2003). The Impact of the Built Environment on Health: An Emerging Field. American Journal of Public Health, 93(9), 1382-1384.
Kadushin, C. (2012). Understanding Social Networks. New York: Oxford.
Kochtitzky, C., Frumkin, H., Rodriguez, R., Dannenberg, A., Rayman, J., Rose, K.,…Kanter, T. (2006). Urban planning and public health at CDC.MMWR: Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, 55(2), 34-8.
Lidwell, W., Hodlen, K. & Butler, J. (2010). Feedback Loop. In Universal Principles of Design (2nd edition). Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers.
Luke, D. & Stamatakis, K. (2012). Systems Science Methods in Public Health: Dynamics, Networks, and Agents. Annual Reviews of Public Health, 33, 357-376.
Miller, J., & Page, S. (2007). Complexity in Social Worlds. In Complex Adaptive Systems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mitchell, M. (2009). What is Complexity? In Complexity: A Guided Tour. New York: Oxford.
Reed, K. (2013, September 20). Session 1: Redefining Citizen. [TED City 2.0] Retrieved
Rydin, Y., Bleahu, A., Davis, M., Davila, J., Friel, S., De Grandis, G.,… Wilson, J. (2012). Shaping cities for health: complexity and the planning of urban environments in the 21st century. Lancet, 379(9831), 2079-2108. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60435-8.
Wiltschko, G. (2013, September 20). Making Urban Planning Urban. [TEDxVienna]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-0p8ZpBq04
Young, C. (2012). Buddha Quotes – 365 Days of Inspirational Quotes and Sayings in Buddhism [Kindle Edition]. USA: Amazon Digital.
All photos copyright ©2013 Karina S. Descartin.