Category: Mega Projects

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U.S. is a nation dominated by urban sprawl and monotonous architeture and  landscape, while lifestyles rooted at sprawling urban spaces are “lonely and neurologically punishing” (Howard Frumkin et al., 2004, p. 137). Although we have to admitted that suburban lifestyles provide some benefits to residents, such as esacpe from crowding, release of life stress, and opportunity of contact with nature,  new development in suburban areas and  living in there cause greater scale of degradation of nature and monotonous living environment , long distance of commuting by riding private vehicles, social isolation, Shorter available time for staying with family and contact with nature. Ironically, those changes mostly contradict American’s originial benign wishes of  improving quality of life (Howard Frumkin et al., 2004).

Urban sprawl has been well suggested as an unsustainble way for development, which has caused various public health problems (Howard Frumkin et al., 2004). We have to realize that “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically (Howard Frumkin et al., 2004, p. 220)”.  Control of two upstream factors that have prominent  impacts on public health: land use and transportation is very crucial to deal with public health challenges related to built environment (Howard Frumkin et al., 2004).

Lack of physical activity is one prominent challenge for suburban residents’ health. As outcome of urban sprawl, suburabn communities with low residential densities, low land use diversity, and poorly connected streets cause long distance between destinations, few necessieties within walking distance, and walking routes without clear orientation (Gallimore, Brown, & Werner, 2011). All of these attributes collectively contribute to suburban residents’ low level of physical activity and heavy reliance on cars . Acording to a report from National Insitutes of Health (1998), a recurring rise of activities related to sedentary life style was associated with increasing revalence rate of obseity, and obseity-related illnesses, such as diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.

Lack of social support is another salient disadvantage of living in suburban areas. The mechanisms of why urban sprawl impede social capital includes four main aspects: First, it limits commuters’ time and energy to participate civil activities; Second, it restricts opportunities for casual social interaction; Third, it overemphasizes the importance of private realm and interests and disencourage people’s support for public initiatives;  Fourth, it causes social segregation because of residents have homogenous social class and race; Finally, people have to relocate when they get old because the orginal neighborhood lacks facilities and smaller-size houses for aged people (Howard Frumkin et al., 2004, p. 172). Since social supports are important for release of daily stressors and they also provode access to goods and services that improve public health, such as housing, food, health care, it is reasonable to find that many people live in suburban neighborhoods are more susceptible to stress, depression, and other mental disorders comparing to people who live in traditional urban neighborhoods with greater degree of mixed land use, various public open spaces, walkable streets,  and diverse friendly social groups (Howard Frumkin, 2005, p. 398).

The collective presense of adults in community is critical to support children’s  a varity of activities and provide adolescents opportunities to learn from those adults as role models and realize what are appropriate behaviors and social values. Therefore, enough decent social interactions with adults are essential for young people’s formation of healthy “patterns of behavior and interaction” for their future lives (Ellen & Turner, 1997). However, design of suburban neighborhood makes children live as “a prisoner of a thoroughtly safe and unchallenging environment” (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, & Speck, 2001, p. 116). Children and adolesents don’t have enough opportunities to practice at becoming adults. Suburban life also brings a lot of burden to mothers, who are called as “soccer mom”, since their children’s activities out of community heavily rely on their errands, many mothers’ career were derailed. In addition, lack of decent public spaces for social gathering in suburban community, which may contribute to failure of providing opportunity to teenages to shape a sense of self and maturing themselves and learning useful skills. Teenages in suburban comunities suffered from“isolation and boredom” tend to have a higher rate of driving cars illegally and get more involved in automobile accidents, they aslo showed an increasing rate of suicide cuased (Duany et al., 2001, pp. 118-122). Suburban life also brings a great burden to older people. As people getting old, their skills of driving vehicles will graudally dimish and they will get more dependence on other people for mobility. Separation of land uses make it is impossible of elder people to have a decent life if they don’t have capabilities of driving a car. Therefore elderly people have to move out old neighborhood and rebuilt their social network in a new retirement community, an outcome of suburbanism, which is blamed for segregation of older people from the rest of society (Duany et al., 2001, pp. 122-124).

Urban sprawl also caused segreation of society. Urban sprawl encourages corporations move out from urban area to metropolitan fringe by providing well-connnected freeways and land with low price.  As a result, job opportunities are moving from urban area to suburban areas without adequate public transportation. Growing job opportunities in suburb are inaccessible for urban poors without private cars even they have adequate skills and are desperated to get a job (Ellen & Turner, 1997). In addition, new highways designed to connect suburban areas with downtown always take advantage of cheapest land in poor urban communities. It is normal to see urban poor neighborhoods are cut into pieces by highspeed roadways and parking lots (Duany et al., 2001, p. 130). Urban poor neighborhoods become unsafe, unfriendly for walking, lack of employment opportunities. Urban sprawl clearly push urban poors into more distressed situation. For young people living in dilapidated and unsafe communities, they will take vandalism, violence, even crime for granted, which is seriously detrimental for their view of the world and put their future at risk (Ellen & Turner, 1997).

Although it is important to think about planning of infrasture in a way of promoting public health but, unfortunately, concerns of public health have been raley considered by decision makers when they are conducting infrastructure planning. Simply regarding urban conditions as background but not determinants of health will impede us to solve public health problems associated with urban living environment (Howard Frumkin, 2005, p. 396). We already heard a lot of ideas from architecture and design areas and there are many encouraging ways to shape a healthier environment environment, however, most of them didn’t have prolonged impacts because of lack of scientific evidence to support those claims. Therefore, it is a great potential, also a challenge, of connecting sustainable urban planning and design with public health.  Research about the impacts of the built environment on public health is crucial (Howard Frumkin et al., 2004). In addition, it is crucial to combine expertises, knowledges and skills of various related professionals including planners, architects, designers, public health professionals and let them realize they need understand effects of built environment on public health in each other’s perspectives and learn to cooperate with each other to meet the challenge.

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Jane Jacobs said in that book:

” but look what we have built with the first several billions: low-income
projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity…”

I notice similar things happening in many cities, from U.S. to China. It is a big question for us.

Cities need ” a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially.”