A City Like a Body
Top: David Johnson, “White Mountains from Conway, NH,” 1851 (MFA Boston); Bottom: Housing development outside Los Angeles, 1996 (from “Treatises: Taking Measures across the American Landscape by James Corner,” photo by Alex Maclean)
Ten thousand is the number of steps we’re told to walk each day if we want to stay active and healthy. For many, this means wearing a Fitbit and checking it regularly. But for city planners attempting to design a healthier city, the implication is far more than personal: it means finding ways to make walkability an essential feature of our cities.
Yet, according to Sara Carr, a recent Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies, who delivered the second Mellon Midday Dialogue of the semester, this trend toward walkability is only the most recent episode in a much longer (and occasionally fraught) relationship between public health and urban landscape.
Despite public health researchers’ nascent interest in studying wellness in relation to the built environment—between 2003 and 2013, more than six hundred related articles have been published, compared to fewer than forty in the preceding decade—city planners have been borrowing insights from physicians for a much longer period of time.
Carr explained that planners have often imagined cities in anthropomorphic terms. Just as physicians diagnose, and surgeons operate on, the human body, so too have planners prescribed different fixes for the world of brick and mortar.
In a way, Carr is uniquely positioned to tell this history. She currently holds a one-of-a-kind joint appointment between the school of architecture and the office of public health studies at the University of Hawaii. This position has allowed Carr to bring together students from both schools who, despite the intertwined history of their disciplines, are rarely encouraged to interact in the classroom.
Carr began her presentation with a discussion of the nineteenth century, when physicians still thought of miasma—literally, “bad air”—as the cause of diseases ranging from cholera to obesity. To contain this ethereal threat, planners paved over exposed bodies of waters and moved sewage systems underground. (Both were believed to emanate miasma.)
The eventual replacement of miasma theory with germ theory did not prevent planners from identifying new ills within the design of the city. This time around, however, it was the urban density associated with tenement buildings and slums that they took issue with. As an antidote, they prescribed large, open spaces, giving rise to landmarks of urban design like Central Park, whose chief architect, Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr., had also served on the Sanitary Commission.
In recent decades, as the focus of public health debates has shifted from infectious to chronic diseases, planners have reversed many of these earlier views. Urban waters that were previously paved over have been reexposed to inject a dose of nature into the concrete jungle. Instead of decrying density, planners now herald close-knit urban centers as a requisite for walkability, which helps to counter ailments, like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, that are often associated with America’s overreliance on cars.
But despite the evident benefits of walkable cities, Carr is weary of making sweeping claims about their superiority. As the principal investigator of a walkability study group in Hawaii, she sees much of the current rhetoric surrounding walkability as built upon a monolithic model that overlooks the preferences of diverse local demographics, for whom walking can sometimes be either unfeasible or outright dangerous. Context, for Carr—as it is for walking—remains paramount.