The healthy city as unrealised potential.
This research project is funded by Fondation Braillard Architectes.
In most European countries, the birth of town planning as a discipline and profession was intrinsically linked to public health. This concern led to new legislation and prompted the development of urban experiments, many of which were led by industrials seeking to improve the living conditions of their workers.
Although the ills of the industrial city, such as epidemics, are long gone in the developed world, research has over the past twenty years highlighted a number of health-related concerns, in particular obesity, respiratory diseases or stress.
As a result, health has regained momentum across the disciplinary spectrum, particularly in architectural and urban design theory – a trend that is reflected by the publication of a wide range of general and theoretical material, but also of some more practice-oriented works which offer analyses of the impact of design for health and provide diagnosis methods and design toolkits for shaping healthy places and spaces to live, work and recreate
This research proposal intends to build upon the LIFE project, funded by the Grenoble Idex and of which AE&CC is one of the lead partners. LIFE aims to examine the determinants of health trajectories by capturing underestimated yet crucial contributing factors including access to care, socio-economic factors, environmental exposures and urban and architectural design.
Two case studies
This research relies on two case study terrains, respectively located in the twin cities of Grenoble (France) and Oxford (Great-Britain). The first site is the Flaubert area, located in Grenoble. The area, in the Southern part of the city, is subject to a major mixed-use regeneration project of which health is one of the cornerstones. The project is still at a very early stage, and the first constructions have not yet been built. The local development company, SPL SAGES, is working with a range of organisations, including LabEx AE&CC, to experiment new ways of addressing health-related issues in the urban environment.
The second case study is the Barton Park project, a major urban extension in Oxford, which will provide 885 homes as part of a mixed-use area delivered over a period of ten years. Construction has already started as part of the first phase of the development. This project is one of the ten pilot schemes supported as part of the National Health Service “Healthy New Towns” programme. The aim is to “dramatically improve population health, and integrate health and care services, as new places are built and take shape”
These two case-studies will run throughout the research programme. They will rely on: an analysis of existing public policy frameworks and planning documents; site surveys and analyses; interviews with key stakeholders. Partnerships are established with both city councils, and with a range of relevant stakeholders.
These two sites will also be used as project sites for students from the School of Architecture and the Town Planning Institute. Students from the school of architecture registered in the AE&CC masters programme, run by members of the AE&CC research centre, will work on both sites as part of their final year project. By allowing architecture and urban design students to work on the same project sites, joint studio and seminar sessions will be able to take place, thus strengthening the overall pedagogical process. In particular, the input from the cross-disciplinary research team will benefit all students. It should be noted that it will be the first time such an experiment is carried out at this scale between both institutions, drawing in a range of researchers, practitioners, elected members and other stakeholders from two different countries.
What can we learn from the past?
we suggest that healthy city design is somewhat of an unrealised potential, to adopt the words of Ernst Bloch, and that a number of precedents have, since the 19th century, provided valuable contributions to design-led solutions but that they have not been sufficiently picked upon. They are well documented from a historical perspective but have not been used as tools for designing the contemporary city with health in mind. Although some of their aspects may no longer be relevant, we believe they may well offer some under-estimated contributions to addressing current health-related issues. This research will consequently aim at devising a specific set of criteria for analysing a range of design precedents, from the point of view of health.
How is the healthy city currently designed?
We argue that it is important to examine current ‘real life’ projects aiming to design healthy cities. Whilst a large amount of theoretical academic literature is available, there is a need to critically assess current attempts to practice urban design in a way that allows to better address health issues. This research will in part consist in a case-study of two ongoing pilot/experimental projects which seek to put health at the centre of design: the regeneration of the Flaubert neighbourhood in Grenoble and the Barton Park urban extension in Oxford.
How does one teach healthy city design?
Fourth, and since this research project is both rooted in research and teaching, we argue that teaching healthy city design should in itself become an object of research. Health is far from being central in architectural and urban design curricula today. Future generations of architects and planners need to be trained today to impulse long-term change yet the ways in which health can be integrated in the design studio is yet to be established. This research therefore aims to build a prolegomena to the didactics of healthy urban and architectural design.