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Guest Column

New Urbanism congress to link livable cities with healthier people

By Guest Columnist LAURA HEERY PROZES, AIA, executive co-chair of the Congress for the New Urbanism 18

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tracked a virulent virus, spreading since the 1950’s, crossing borders and oceans, with host bodies adapting remarkably to this disease.

Americans have adapted to the imbedded foreign bacteria, unaware of the extent that lives and health are compromised. In fact, we have been living remarkably well with the virus, perhaps similar to how we integrate cancer, diabetes, asthma, hypertension into daily lives.
laura heery photo
Symptoms from the virus are mundane, such as obesity, and other symptoms have new names, such as Nature Deficit Disorder. We have prostheses to offset the health and lifestyle limitations, elevators to avoid stairs, cars to our doorsteps.

Yet, as we rely on technologically advanced artificial aids, unfortunately our underlying physiology diminishes further. Just as body chemistry adapts to rely on nicotine, or addictive habits take over increasing space in the brain, our lives are so adapted around this virus that restoring to a pre-virus, healthy condition is an enormously large-scale, costly, daunting proposition.

Elusive memories of how we lived before this virus, and those qualities of daily life, are now more occasional — say, on a special visit to an historic or healthy place. As we more cleverly adapt, the conscious triggers fade that would compel us to reclaim basic health.

However, an increasing body of research and metrics from the CDC, other rigorous and credible research sources now confront us. We now know that the “Sprawl Virus” is a pre-condition for obesity, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, social isolation, mental health dysfunction, drought and unnatural weather patterns related to urban heat island effect, soil and air contamination, water scarcity, foreign bacteria migration due to climate change.

Widespread loss of walkable, bikeable, age-diverse, livable neighborhoods and commercial, civic places, in countrysides, garden suburbs and cities, is a symptom of the Sprawl Virus.

Public infrastructure with low initial costs, long-term inefficiencies and diminishing value, high energy use, waste of water, natural resources — and disproportionate tax use to tax base – are other symptoms of the Sprawl Virus. Streets with no sidewalks, disconnected development, the absence of a physical sense of community or traditional neighborhood and the lack street or transit networks are also the Sprawl Virus.

Unlike original, traditional suburbs with nearby “main streets” and walkable neighborhood parks and schools, Sprawl Virus development patterns remove topography, natural stream beds, pervious areas that replenish water tables, greenspaces, good soils for agriculture, mature trees and shade. Both human ecology and natural ecology are largely removed.

We once thought that the Sprawl Virus was a naturally occurring, “free market” phenomenon. Now we know that public policies of decades ago converged to create the Virus and stimulate the spreading of Sprawl.

An obscure detail, often communicated by Andres Duany, a founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, is that low interest mortgages designed to avert a depression at the end of World War II, did not include renovations of existing house stock. A viral response to that federal mortgage incentive program became all new residential subdivisions and in-town neighborhoods, which has experienced two decades of deferred maintenance, were left behind.

Public infrastructure, public policies, banking and mortgage incentives, public zoning and building codes public agency regulations and standards, and recently, Wall Street securitization standards, triggered viral market responses and conspired to create false demand for a product that is rarely the actual market preference.

Yet, now household economics are converging with the issues of livability and public health.

Walkability is raising house values according to recent surveys conducted by CEOS for Smart Cities. Investment value in more efficient, sustainable development patterns and positive health outcomes are converging. The meaning of “sustainability” extends to financially sustainable as well as ecologically sustainable for humans and wildlife.

Research groups, such as the Center for Neighborhood Technology (www.cnt.org) map car-dependency costs on household expenses. Metrics on duration and number of car trips per household, the extent of our time and lives seated in cars, are mappable by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) and other metropolitan planning organizations.

Four divisions of the CDC and in their Healthy Community Design Initiative, have apparently been gathering research that links public health issues to the built environment. The extent of CO2 emissions and impervious surfaces, how these contribute to drought, flooding, extreme weather patterns, are more measurable.

Information on how to “cure” the Sprawl Virus will be demonstrated and disseminated with 18th annual, national Congress for the New Urbanism, organized with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta May 19 to 22, 2010. Link here for more info.

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) includes decision makers and thought leaders who define best design and development practices for land, neighborhoods and communities, who reform public policy and who guide infrastructure planning to support market-driven, sustainable communities.


  1. Tim Ryan December 10, 2009 3:17 pm

    Thank you Laura for a great column! While the releationship between healthy, meaningful connections to others and healthy physical well being should be so obvious, I guess our nation’s “pioneer spirit” keeps most of us from admitting that we do need others.

    We are working hard to deliver a downtown walkable community in Franklin, NC. I hope you will look into our work.Report


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