By Charrisse Johnston, ASID, LEED AP BD+C, Associate AIA
Urbanization—the movement of people from rural to urban areas—is nothing new. But we’ve been hearing more and more about urbanization recently because now more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2050 two out of three people will be city dwellers.
The United Nations also projects that “mega-cities”—those with more than 10
million residents—will grow in number too, from 28 today (Tokyo being the largest)
to 41 by 2030.
Some people are quite concerned with declining air quality in our cities, and
rightly so. A year ago, a performance artist
walked the streets of Beijing holding up a
portable vacuum; he extracted so many
pollutants from the air in just 100 days
that he made it into a brick. But with
clean energy technology; auto and factory
emission limits; newly planted treescapes
and green roofs; and innovations such as
particulate-sucking roof tiles, paints, and
drones, there are many efforts underway
to prevent the pollution-caused, never-ending rain of “Blade Runner” from
becoming a reality.
Others fear overcrowding, envisioning
the human beehives of the infamous
Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong,
the favelas of Rio, or the townships in
Johannesburg. These areas, though, are
the result of political neglect, not urbanization
per se; the impoverished people living in
these areas cannot afford to leave, and no
one is funding the building of proper housing
and infrastructure for them. Densification
itself is not a bad word, in my opinion, unlike NIMBYism and Malthusianism.
What if I suggested that smart urbanization—cities with plenty of parks, public
transportation, social services, and cultural options—can actually improve health
and wellness? That’s a provocative, but accurate, statement. Research has shown
that connectedness to others and a purpose for living are the keys to longevity,
even more so than modern medicine and fancy diets. The Japanese have a name
for that reason to get up every morning, which keeps us going: ikigai.
A few years ago, a group of us at Gensler (the firm I worked for prior to Steinberg
Architects) studied how design can improve longevity through ikigai. We concluded
that smart city planning can be a huge contributor, by allowing people to continue to
do what they love, be it taking care of grandchildren, going to watch their favorite
sports teams, or teaching at a university. Multigenerational living is good for both
young and old. Developing relationships with older people gives kids and teenagers
a longer-range perspective to life that encourages them to stay in school, for
example. Interacting with children keeps seniors mentally and socially engaged,
a key component to active aging.
The Taube Koret Campus in Palo Alto, Calif., is a good example of a thriving
urban nucleus for all ages. Designed by Steinberg and designated LEED Silver,
it contains assisted living, a memory care unit, a preschool, a sports and fitness
center, a cultural arts hall, offices and
restaurants, and copious outdoor play and
gathering areas. If you visit any day of the
year, you’ll be greeted by a mix of people of
many ages, incomes, and religions.
On the South Side of Chicago, the
Rebuild Foundation created another urban
mixing bowl by building a library, theater,
performing arts center, job-training workshop,
and housing collaborative in a cluster of
formerly rundown city blocks. People of all
backgrounds now come together throughout
the day, joined by a love of music and art,
and curious to learn from each other.
Creating these new mash-ups of project
types requires large multidisciplinary teams,
and interior designers are crucial participants.
At ASID, we not only represent all sectors
of interior design, we also celebrate their
convergence and welcome all design
professionals to the table. We recently made
a public commitment to working together
with AIA, the Urban Land Institute, the
American Society of Landscape Architects, the International Code Council, the
American Planning Association, and the American Society of Civil Engineers to
rebuild the public spaces and buildings that tie our communities together.
Urbanization is upon us—there’s no escaping it. So, rather than denying or
fearing the inevitable, let’s join forces and use design to address its challenges
head on and become better neighbors to each other. After all, isn’t that what
Mister Rogers taught us years ago when he said, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Charrisse Johnston, ASID, LEED AP BD+C, Associate AIA, is the Chair of the Board
of Directors and a principal and the firm-wide interior design practice leader at
Steinberg Architects. Learn more about ASID at ASID.org.
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The growth of urban areas can help inhabitants commingle and find a collective purpose.