Urban Design

Urban design comprises an important theme that guides urban planning research and practice, linking physical structures, (what planners refer to as built form), with social environments. Urban design has become a primary emphasis for public health researchers interested in the role of land use and development patterns in obesity and rates of physical activity (Handy, et al., 2002). In terms of urban health, the design of buildings, parks, and streets (e.g., sidewalks, streetscapes, bus stops), the location of these elements, and the interaction between people and these built environment elements influence, though they do not determine, the ways that individuals behave and interact with one another. Planners use urban design elements (e.g., building facades, street signage, lighting, landscaping) to encourage and facilitate economic activity (through e.g., farmers markets and street cafes), civic action (through e.g., areas for social gatherings), and physical activity (through e.g., walking paths), as well as to curb undesirable or unhealthy behaviour, such as property and violent crime (through e.g., expanded and enhanced street lighting schemes) and pedestrian/bicyclist injuries/death (through e.g., street lights, speed bumps, and street alignments), or to cope with chronic illnesses such as dementia (through e.g., room and building design). For more examples, please see Loukaitou-Sideris, (1999), and Cohen and Day, (1993).

To promote physical health, at the regional scale, some have advocated for the co-location of transit, homes, businesses, and shopping opportunities, falling under the broad rubric of "new urbanism" to encourage walking, discourage driving, and increase opportunities for social interaction (Duany and Plater-Zyberk, 1991). There has been a proliferation of studies that have examined the relationship among urban design, development patterns, and physical activity (e.g. Handy, et al., 2002 or Northridge and Sclar, 2003). For example, The National Research Council recently convened a committee of transportation, land use, and public health scholars to study this topic.

At the local level, urban planners have long been interested in urban park design and location, and the influence of design and location on park use. Such studies also build on the beliefs that the built environment (its design and location) frame, though does not determine, individual, household, and community behav iour, and consequently, can motivate or constrain civic action (Jacobs, 1961). As a consequence of such beliefs, planners strive to improve, enhance, and expand public spaces and places. In a recent commentary, Banerjee (2001) recommended to planners that they advocate for parks and open space, and support grassroots initiatives, that they facilitate creative solutions by acting as mediators among public, private, and nonprofit groups, that they focus on "reinventing" deteriorating areas, including malls and downtowns, that they support the development of businesses that facilitate conviviality in public life through cultural experiences, that the design of streets and sidewalks are seen as important public spaces for interaction, and that they respond to increasing racial/ethnic diversity, including rapidly expanding immigrant populations.

A related area of longstanding interest within planning is housing - a topic that can be grouped within either urban design or economic development planning. Planning efforts to improve housing include U.S. government programs that in past decades funded the building of public housing and, more recently, subsidies made available to low income renters. At the local level, many planners work on efforts to ensure that housing is affordable for low and moderate income persons - an especially pressing issue in urban areas with high housing costs. Research has shown that there are links between the quality of the housing stock and both physical and mental health. See, e.g., Bonnefoy, et al., (2003) for evidence on housing quality and physical health, and the reviews in Evans, Walls, and Moch (2003) and Evans (2003) for a discussion of the link between housing characteristics and mental health. For example, high rise living is associated with reduced psychological well being in some settings (Evans, Walls, and Hoch, 2003; Evans, 2003). Planning approaches to public housing in the generation after World War II included a large role for high-rise dwellings, with little initial attention to possible adverse mental health impacts on residents, illustrating the need for stronger links between urban health and planning.

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