International Making Cities Livable Conference: A NewPublicHealth Q&A with Conference Co-Founder Suzanne Lennard

Jun 24, 2013, 12:45 PM

Suzanne Lennard, Co-founder of the International Making Cities Livable Conference Suzanne Lennard, Co-founder of the International Making Cities Livable Conference

NewPublicHealth is on the road this week at the AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland and the International Making Cities Livable Conference meeting in Portland, Oregon. Watch out for session coverage, Q&As with presenters and other updates from both conferences this week.

The International Making Cities Livable Council is an interdisciplinary, international network of individuals and cities dedicated to making our cities and communities more livable, with a focus on how the built environment impacts the wellbeing of the people who live in a community. This year’s conference focuses on creating healthy suburbs. And though health is an inextricable component of a livable city or suburb, this concept also includes enabling healthy social interaction; fostering a healthy local economy; creating safe spaces where children can grow up successfully; and more. NewPublicHealth coverage will focus on the critical connection between health and livability.

Prior to the conference, we connected with Suzanne Lennard, co-founder of the International Making Cities Livable Conference, who provided critical context on just what makes a city livable, and some of the contextual history on how our nation’s cities and suburbs strayed from livability—and what we can learn from other counties in getting back to healthy, livable places to live, learn and play.

NewPublicHealth: How did you come to found the International Making Cities Livable Conference?

Suzanne Lennard: My husband, who died several years ago, was a medical sociologist and social psychologist and his field was the study of social interaction in different settings and under different circumstances. When I met him, I was studying for a PhD at UC Berkeley in Human Aspects of Architecture and Urban Design and I was interested in how the built environment enhanced well-being. We started working together and since we were both from Europe—he was Viennese and I was from England—we began to look at how some European cities were enhancing well-being.

It became very obvious there were huge changes taking place in European cities during the ‘70s. Old marketplaces, which had been used as car parks were being turned back into pedestrian zones. Reasons for the changes included commercial ones—they wanted to increase commerce on the shopping streets and weren’t necessarily trying to make their cities more livable, but as a consequence a lot of these changes did make their cities more hospitable and people began to spend time in the public realm. About the same time transportation planners were realizing that walking and taking bikes and public transit should all be considered as part of transportation plans, not just driving.

In the field of architecture, there was movement towards more human scale buildings and away from skyscrapers which made the streets very active and made living in the city center very convenient and enhanced the public realm. Farmers’ markets and festivals were being rediscovered, and we were studying what effect this had on the quality of social life in the public realm. We interviewed the people who were responsible for these changes in their city and it was usually a visionary mayor, sometimes a visionary chief city planner, and we talked to them about what they were doing and why. We discovered that most didn’t know each other so we decided we’d have to create a forum where we could bring these fantastic visionary people together and also make it possible for American elected officials and planners and architects and designers to come and learn from what was going on in Europe. So that is why we founded the conferences.

NPH: What defines a livable city?

Suzanne Lennard: Many things. Being able to walk and exercise in public spaces and get around your city and allow children to be more independent if the streets are safe and there’s no or little traffic. But as important as that, and perhaps even more important, is the social aspect—that people can become part of a social network, friendships develop as does contact between people who are from different ethnic and economic groups and different ages, which allows these networks to form, which are absolutely essential to physical and emotional health.

There’s a great deal of information about physical health that shows that even the active living programs may not be successful if the individuals are not tied into a supportive social network. Some studies have shown that people who live very isolated lives tend to be more susceptible to chronic illness and depression, and that’s especially true for elders, but also for children.

This is such an important key that having this sociability in the public realm of the city is what allows each person living in the city to have a social immune system – a functioning “social immune system.”

So we began to get together the European mayors and planners with the American mayors and planners and other people to define how the built environment was affecting the quality of life and social life and well-being of the population and what all the tools were in reshaping the built environment that could be used to improve health and quality of life.

The very first conference we held was in Venice because Venice is built to the human and social scale. The little squares, the campi, are what bring the community together. There are six main neighborhoods and each main neighborhood has at least one large campo, a square, and around the campo are all the shops and services and banks and offices and everything that you need, and the festivals take place on the square and many people live over the shops and look out onto the square. That public square is where so much of the social life in the neighborhood takes place. People walk everywhere in Venice and you have public transit and you can traverse longer distances that way and that also brings different types of people together, the rich and the poor and old and the young.

NPH: When did those sorts of squares start in the big city and how did we get away from them?

Lennard: Well, the idea, of course, started in ancient Greece with the agora, which was the marketplace where everything took place. People sold and bought things and they discussed politics and they watched plays and they debated and they elected their representatives and everything then out of the agora and they invented democracy. Out of that came the Roman forum and then the Romans built cities all over Europe and they always built them around the forum. And then after the Roman empire declined and European cities came back again in the Middle Ages, it was possible to trade and to have markets and the ruined Roman cities started up again around the old marketplaces.

The idea of the square declined during the Baroque periods and then was taken over by cars and, as I noted when we started talking, in the ‘70s European cities began to take back those public places and rebuild community participation in the city.

NPH: Why is it important to have so many disciplines come together at the conference and then beyond the conference?

Lennard: It’s really important because each discipline has a different insight into what the problem is and how they can be engaged in solving the problem. It took public health to see the enormous problem we have with childhood obesity, which is connected to a large extent to the way the built environment, especially in suburbia, has been created. It is unwalkable and there are food deserts and there’s no chance for children to play out of doors and the streets are unsafe. And it takes elected city officials to say we have a lot of obesity and we have a lot of crime and social problems also tend to congregate in certain areas that underserved, and this area really needs some help in order to become more equitable and we can put funding towards improving that neighborhood.

Then you need the land use planners because they can say, well, we can’t do that unless we change the zoning in this area. Zoning is a good tool for creating an area central to a neighborhood that will be more mixed use. We’ll allow shops and we’ll allow businesses and small industry perhaps and we’ll allow more density in this area and this will bring people together and then the other designers will say, okay, what we really need is a small square where people in this neighborhood can come together and it has to have shops and cafes and a grocery store to help make it safe and the architects can say, okay, we can design the buildings with commercial use at street level and residential above.

Then the transportation planners will say, if you’re going to have that density, we can connect the center of this neighborhood to the center of the city so that people can get to their jobs by public transit, which will now be financially viable because of the critical mass. And the landscape architects will say they need a park and streets that are designed to be walkable and bike lanes and wide sidewalk. So you need all of these different people to understand the problem and to bring their tools and strategies together to solve the problem.

NPH: What themes do you expect to rise to the top at this year’s conference?

Lennard: We’re focusing this year’s conference on suburbia. In the past we often focused on the city center or the city as a whole. Suburbia lacks opportunity for exercise and needs walkability and bikeability. Some of the solutions are how to reconstruct what we call ten minute or twenty minute neighborhoods so that everybody is living within walking distance of all the kinds of things that they need—healthy food, shops, places to eat, places to gather, the school, public transit, business and their job.

NPH: What will you be speaking about at the conference?

Lennard: Up until now, sustainability has been thought of as an environmental issue, having to do with nature, with the built environment, ecological buildings. But there are more parts to sustainability. You want to have an equitable community with no crime or other social issues but you also want those improvements to be transferred to the next generation.

Social development really requires the ability to spend time with friends, learning how to make friends, meeting friends, arranging to do things together, having secret places to go, inventing games, and then also developing skills in interacting with different kinds of people, of different ages, knowing how to evaluate people, whether a person is friendly and hospitable towards them or whether they might be not such a good person to talk to, they have to learn how to evaluate that, how do they do this, how do they learn how to interact?

Ethical and moral issues are learned through the community and the more opportunities you have to see the community working as a complete community with people of all ages and all backgrounds, then children learn how to be ethical and caring and learn from people with different skills.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.