Good public spaces make resilient communities

I happened upon two separate videos last week that changed my perspective on urban planning.

Ew, urban planning sounds boring…

I used to think that too. I thought that urban planning was about deciding where to put housing and how to add an overpass. But it turns out that it’s much more than that. It’s the philosophy of how people use space. And–as it turns out– how we use space has many implications for our lives such as:

  • Subjective happiness
  • Freedom of choice
  • Ability to withstand disasters
  • Global warming
  • Health and safety
  • Economies

Most of us live in places we don’t care about.

James Howard Kunstler’s TED talk is a highly amusing look at what’s gone wrong in America’s urban design–especially suburbia. He takes Boston’s City Hall Plaza as a good example.

Bostonquote

And on the other side of the building…

TED talk: 9:02
TED talk: 9:02

And that’s just in urban centers. Suburbia is so much worse. Kunstler calls it a “cartoon” of the country. My brother calls it the “worst of both worlds” because you can’t be self-sufficient as in the country, but you can’t walk to everything you need as in the city. But what can be done about it? Kunstler has some ideas:

Bad design = bad life

Besides being ugly, our badly designed cities are making us sick. Dr. Karen Lee (below)–a public health specialist–says “We’ve inadvertently designed physical activity out of our lives” which costs us money both as individuals and as a society.

Courtesy of Upworthy
Courtesy of Upworthy

She goes on to say,

“In the 19th century and early 20th century, our leading causes of death were infections diseases–diseases like cholera, like tuberculosis. And the way that we that we actually defeated those diseases was through city design. We created sanitation infrastructure, clean water systems. Today, we’ve got a different set of diseases. The way we need to…think about defeating those diseases is actually analogous to our past” (4:59+)

Because our cities are designed for cars. Not people. 

Cars are environmentally unfriendly, take up a TON of space, and force us to use space in an isolated, sedentary fashion.

Courtesy of Planetizen
Courtesy of Planetizen

Think about how hard it is to get into your favorite city: the traffic, the parking, planning around errand locations and rush hours. Now, think about how hard it is to get around in your favorite city: the noise, more traffic, one-way streets, overpasses…

Courtesy Upworthy
Courtesy Upworthy

Now… notice how this city is in this video is set up. [Side note: a quick summary of this video can be found at Upworthy where the two gifs above were taken. Also, Brent Toderian, our tour guide in the video, writes the Planetizen blog from which I took the vintage metro pic above. Lots of really good stuff on his blog and Twitter.)

So what?

What does good public spaces have to do with emergency management?

  • Living locally is easier on our psychology (says Kunstler)
  • Exchanging acres of asphalted parking spaces for useable land (maybe an urban forest which boosts self-sufficiency?)
    • decreases ambient heat build up (which cools a city, reduces energy spent on cooling people, and returns the ecosystem to a normal temperature),
    • and helps with flood management (all that rain water can get into the ground now instead of rushing over the top of miles of asphalt).
  • When your community has a “sense of place” you slow down (as Toderian points out) and get to know your neighbors. Your neighbors are the people who will help you rebuild after a disaster. Communities who are socially interconnected are more resilient.

Resilient communities might start with a space that is worth caring about.

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