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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Eight components of a "healing city"

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 12, 2012

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  New England Futures photo of Fall River mayor & kids at festival (by: Dave Weed, Fall River Healthy City Coordinator)

As director of NRDC’s sustainable communities work, I spend a lot of time defining (and refining) our goals:  what is a sustainable community?  We must know the destination in order to forge a path.  But, in this case, that path can be as elusive as Hansel and Gretel’s.

In a room of twenty "experts," chances are you'll find a dozen different definitions.  I’ve come to believe that there is no fixed definition of a sustainable community, though there are some good descriptions out there, mostly having to do with places that foster environmental, economic and social health in the present without compromising the future. 

Forging or choosing a clear statement can be useful, especially for the pragmatic professionals who tend to populate my daily work environment.  But, at the same time, trying to narrow the concept down can miss a lot, in my opinion.  What is far more interesting, and perhaps more important, is the exploration of ideas relating to sustainability.

Ilogo, Healthy City Brighton and Hove, UK (via this vein, in 2010 I ran across the work of what is now called the Healing Cities Institute, “a non-profit society whose intention is to improve the physical, spiritual, social, and mental well-being of our communities.”  I wrote about the group then, because it was beginning to raise some important issues relating to how the physical environment of a place can affect health and wellness - which, as I noted later in an article about societies and happiness, some places are finding ways to measure.

Mark Holland, a former director of Vancouver’s sustainability office and a founder of the Healing Cities Institute, put it this way in an interview published in the Baltimore-based Urbanite:

“Ten years ago when we talked about creating sustainable cities, that was entirely a focus on environment. What has happened since, is that we began to see this tsunami of information coming forward in the connections between design and health. We realized we really needed to dig deeper into the human experience in cities. Most of that has been left to a strange amalgam of other practitioners—architects, environmental physiologists—but it really hasn’t found its way clearly into a framework of urban planning.”

A few years ago, Holland wrote a great statement of the underlying principles for sustainability in his Eight Pillars of a Sustainable Community, which I highlighted here.  As things have evolved, the Pillars were precursors of a sort to what the Institute now calls “8 Dimensions of a Healing City.”  Here is the current list, with some excerpts from the website's somewhat longer discussion of each:

  1. Whole communities – “Does your community support your needs as a whole human being by providing convenient and comfortable opportunities for living, working, playing, and reflecting?”
  2. Conscious mobility – “How do your travel choices make you feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually?”
  3. Restorative architecture – “What do the buildings you spend your time in tell you about your community and the world – and your place within it?”
  4. container garden, Philadelphia (by: Sustainable 19125, creative commons license)Thriving landscapes – “Where do you go to feel connected to earth, people, and other living things?”
  5. Integrated infrastructure – “Do you know what happens with your community’s inputs and outputs (e.g. water, waste, sewage, energy) and how do you feel about the impacts of these systems on the world?”
  6. Nourishing food systems – “What are you eating and how much do you know about it (where it comes from, who created it, what’s in it?)”
  7. Supportive society – “Do you feel you know of resources available to you or those you know should you need assistance or help?”
  8. Healthy prosperity – “What is your relationship to abundance?”

This is an intriguing list, if not an explicitly environmental one.  It is not about how well cities are working with the planet and our natural resources, but about how well cities are working for their residents.  Those two notions may overlap but they are not the same.  Moreover, the questions are written to be considered by individuals.  If someone's preference for "conscious mobility" is a freeway big enough to drive his SUV anywhere he wants without delay, there is nothing in the list to suggest that the answer is any less deserving of respect than that of someone who places a higher value on walkability or transit.  

For my purposes, the original “Pillars” are probably more instructive, because they provide answers as well as questions.  The space given to “nourishing food systems” in the current list, for example, referred specifically to food stores, markets, restaurants and gardens in the older list.  What is now “restorative architecture” was “green buildings” in the older list.  “Conscious mobility” was “an environmentally friendly and community-oriented transportation system.”

No doubt the “Pillars” (read them fully described here) more closely reflected Holland’s background as a city planner.  So now it’s a different list, less prescriptive, only indirectly about the environment, and more open-ended and provocative.  logo, Healthy Cities Noarlunga, South Australia (via MACHS)That is useful, too, particularly for engaging the public in discussion about their communities.  But I wish the Institute would promote both sets of principles, actually:  the planet must be nourished and healed along with its people.  That requires guidance, not just inquiry.

Open-endedness notwithstanding, it is clear from the Urbanite interview that Holland retains a laudable point of view about the specifics of our built environment:

“For instance, a straight-line distance of about 400 to 500 meters between where you live and a grocery store or an eating or drinking establishment will result in directly increased walking . . . Walking increases for individuals about 20 percent for each park that is within a 1-kilometer distance of a residential area. That’s a big number.

“That’s why a person who lives in a suburban density is at least 10 pounds heavier than the average person who lives in an urban density, all other things being equal. Well, for every pound, your body creates roughly 75,000 miles of capillary blood paths to treat all those cells. So, ten times that, that’s a lot more; that’s blood pressure issues.

“Access to community gardens definitely improves physical health, it improves diet, it increases social interaction . . . The list goes on.”

I also love his interest in the neighborhood scale.  Urbanite interviewer Greg Hanscom asked if there were specific examples of successful healing cities.  Holland responded with some thoughts about neighborhood indicators:

“I have difficultly pointing to cities. I think neighborhoods would probably be a better focus. Neighborhoods are the environment in which our kids grow up and we start our businesses. They are the unit of space we live our lives in. Neighborhoods that have a lot of people walking, a lot of people moving around, access to green space, a strong social network—those are the kind of places that build your physical, social, mental, and emotional health and your sense of spiritual well-being.”

Agreed.  We may have to look elsewhere for guidance about creating cities that heal the planet, but the healing of our bodies, mind and spirit deserves consideration, too.  In that respect, the Institute is clearly on to something, and perhaps something important.

Top photo by Dave Weed, courtesy of New England Futures.  Move your cursor over the images for further credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channel.

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SteveJan 12 2012 11:42 AM

Excellent post again, Kaid... thanks!

You referred to "... an intriguing list, if not an explicitly environmental one..." This got me thinking about the relationship between the health of a place and that of the environment it is a part of. My first thought is that if sustainability really is "keeping things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future," then maybe there's an explicit underlying connection between the health of a place and the environment.

This idea is only vaguely-formed, but I think a case can be made that the health of both place and environment can be healed and bolstered by the processes of life, while mechanical processes in their single-mindedness and lack of holistic awareness are more likely than not to cause damage and a loss of health.


LindsayJan 12 2012 01:07 PM

Thank you for the write up Kaid!
I'm also one of the founders of the Healing Cities Institute and it has been such an interesting journey to group together this information and try to conceptualize how to create a deeper and more connected form of sustainability planning.
I wrote my masters thesis on this topic and I'm happy to share it. Please let me know if you are interested in taking a look.

Christine TanabeJan 12 2012 01:42 PM

Like several of the pillars in Holland’s 8 Dimensions of a Healing City list have done over the years, perhaps it’s time for the term sustainability itself to receive a facelift. I wrestle with the sustainability term as much as I wrestle with what the breadcrumb-dotted path to it may be. Resilience is a term gaining traction in many disciplines related to urban planning and the social sciences these days. Often, I find it says more about the symbiotic relationship between people and cities, our needs and aspirations, than sustainability alone. The latter feels too scientific and one-sided, like once we achieve it, we’ll know what the recipe is and that’ll be that. Rather, the real challenge is to constantly respond to new stresses, to balance competing concerns while fostering the physical, emotional, and spiritual outcomes we crave. I support your desire for the needs and impact on the individual to become an equal part of the equation we pursue.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 12 2012 02:06 PM

Steve, I think we need both - or, put another way, that our guiding philosophy must speak directly to environmental issues - and, yes, to science - as well as to human ones. I'm sure we have enough time to be unconcerned with carbon emissions, for example, while focusing on human well-being.

Christine, I'm less concerned with whether we call it sustainability or health or resilience or stewardship or whatever than with which actions we take and encourage.

SarahJan 16 2012 12:06 PM

Bravo, Kaid! I really liked this post.

I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that human and environmental (and on a larger scale, planetary) health are strongly correlated.

We might not think about it consciously, but the health of the environment around us surely plays a huge role in our own well-being, whether we pay any attention to this relationship or not.

In short, we're myopic if we're not taking care of the health of the places around us. It's in our own self-interest!

All this said, I think it makes sense to say that we need to heal our communities to heal ourselves.

Comments are closed for this post.


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