May 03 2016

The Jane Jacobs Way to Design a Healthier City

Inspired by the Famous Urbanist, the Sustainabuild Challenge Pairs Public Health Professionals and Aspiring Architects to Plan a Better City

The late urban visionary Jane Jacobs, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated this week, wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Jacobs’ credo on community participation was taken to heart by Columbia students competing to reshape the urban environment to improve the health of New Yorkers.

Organized by the Mailman School Urban Health Initiative, the Graduate School of Architecture and Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), and the Columbia Population Research Center, the Sustainabuild challenge has four student teams squaring off for a $1,000 prize provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholars program and a chance to present their concept to the City Department of Design and Construction (DDC). Students pitched their ideas on April 26.

Adena Hernandez, an MPH student in Sociomedical Sciences, said she and her Mailman teammates embarked on their project around the newly reopened High Bridge by interviewing residents on either side of the pedestrian crossing. “We wanted to do outreach to find out what the communities want and need,” she said.

Locals in Washington Heights and the Bronx told the group they yearned for the bridge to become a more compelling place to relax with family and friends. One concern was a lack of adequate lighting. In response, the students proposal incorporated plans for both functional and decorative lighting as well as a barbeque area—another community request. 

Healthy and Green

Several teams pointed to the health benefits of parks and green spaces, including their potential to reduce crime, encourage social cohesion, and promote physical activity and mental wellbeing.

A proposed “healing garden” at the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Mott Haven was designed to promote relaxation for both patients and the public through features including a fountain and walls for art and gardening. Subhas Nair, a Columbia College junior, said the 24-hour rooftop garden would do much more than yield edible greens: it would make “the hospital more hospitable.”

As part of her team’s proposal, Mathilde Puls, an MPH student in Sociomedical Sciences, argued for an urban “right to restrooms.” She said the near absence public bathrooms in New York City makes it difficult for some people—including those with limited mobility and bladder and bowel conditions—to spend much time outside. The students’ solution: compostable public toilets to relieve both residents needing a bathroom break as well as the overtaxed water and sewage system.

A pilot toilet in Plazas de las Americas on West 175th Street might also lead to a reduction in the minor crimes of public urination, said Nicole Tay, an MPH student in Epidemiology, while freeing offenders from an unpleasant, and potentially unhealthy, interaction with the criminal justice system.

Police-community relations were also the theme of a proposal by a pair of GSAPP students which would transform two East Harlem parking lots into green space extending from the front door of a police station on 119th Street under the adjacent Metro-North elevated viaduct. Lindsey Wikstrom said the design would create a neutral zone to “break down the barriers between police and the neighborhood.”

A Path Ahead

A panel of judges from the Mailman School and GSAPP will announce the winning proposal on May 12. (Columbians are welcome to attend the event, or stay tuned to the School’s social media accounts to learn the result.)

Whether or not the student designs are realized in bricks and mortar, DDC city planner Alison Brown told students their ideas are always welcome—especially since the agency’s newly released guiding principles for healthy design are intended to evolve over time. “We hope you will share your ideas with us so we can refine the guiding principles and discover their possibilities,” she said.

Gina Lovasi, the co-director of the Mailman School’s Urban Health Initiative, reflected on the competition she took a leading role to organize: “It has been a thrill to see what happens when you combine public health and design thinking—research to understand how urban spaces affects health and a vision to harness the built environment to make it better. Without exception, these students listened to the city, just as Jane Jacobs did before them.”