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Connecting the City Improving the life on the street by showing the life inside the buildings

What is “health city”? Talking about “health city” one can’t help but wonder what exactly does that mean. The question of health is usually associated with the principles of sustainable development of modern cities- that means contact with the environment in the form of green spaces, pedestrian movement or use of bicycles that help you keep in shape and so on. The question of health in a city is much more complex that just the physical health of its inhabitants (although it shouldn’t be neglected). There is also the matter of mental and spiritual health. Or if we try to simplify things, it all comes down to creating a good-quality environment, one in which people feel comfortable and can perceive as theirs. In the example of a green public space, it does not merely serve for improving the physical health of the inhabitants of the city but also provides them with a quiet place where they can escape from the hustle of the city life. So to say it helps their mental and spiritual state as well. But the question of what is in fact “healthy city” is not fully answered simply with a city that has healthy inhabitants. I believe that the healthy city is also related to its physical organization. Or a “healthy city” is one which is planned with consideration of the needs of its inhabitants and guarantees them a life in a good-quality environment. In an interview on the topic of “Making healthy cities”, Danish architect and professor of Urban Design, Jan Gehl identifies three qualities to characterize sustainable cities- people friendly city with good public spaces, a good walking and cycling environment and emphasis on the green spaces: “a sustainable city would be a very people-friendly city. It would be a city with good public spaces and a city that is rather compact. It would be a city that really invites people to walk and bicycle as much as possible… A further, definitive quality to stress is that we need to make sure that cities become greener and that they have a substantial amount of vegetation.” (Gehl, 2008) The site No matter in which aspect we look at the topic of health in the city, all of them suggest that it is closely related to the organization and use of public spaces. If we look at Brussels’ Pachecolaan it is easy to notice that this particular site is not a healthy part of the city- even though bicycle lines are present in the space of the street there is hardly anyone using them; pedestrian movement is obstructed by large scale buildings with long facades; the green spaces are mainly inside the

building blocks and aren’t accessible to the public ; the park on the roof of the City Administrative parking doesn’t contribute to the quality of the area being on an upper level, hidden from the public eye and not being easily accessible. The first thing that strikes the visitor in this area is the lack of people on the streets. Even though most of the buildings are with public functions, they don’t offer open access to the public. The “life” that is happening inside them might be there, but it is not part of the life of the street. Instead it is hidden behind heavy façades with hardly any openings on them. With this attitude to the surroundings, the existing buildings don’t really contribute to the quality of the neighborhood. Each building can be viewed as an individual universe, closed off to the outside world, as if it exists on its own. People are hidden away in those buildings that are not well connected to the outside or the surroundings. So the area in question not only doesn’t help the physical health of people but it also doesn’t work together with the other parts of the city. Strategy The strategy adopted by the group focuses on improving the pedestrian connection from Rue Neuve to Pachecolaan. It involves introducing new functions to the area and attracting new social groups into the area. The main focus is on women and young people as a catalyst of positive change. On an urban level the project proposes developing a public green space and connecting it to the space of the street via a passage through the building. This intervention tackles two aspects of the healthy city. On one hand it makes the area greener- one of the three aspects of the healthy city defined by J. Gehl. On the other hand it introduces a new common space open to everyone. On a building level, the project explores the possible visual connections. The intervention the project proposes is to take an existing building with the above mentioned characteristics and open it up to the outside. The goal is to create a better atmosphere in the street by bringing back the presence of people. It is well known that the

presence of others has a soothing effect when walking on the street. It gives people feeling of safety by establishing social control- a phenomenon Jane Jacobs refers as “the eye on the street”. It is about watching and being watched; about visibility and transparency. In this particular case, opening the facades of the buildings to the outside world can contribute greatly to the atmosphere of the area. When people walk on the streets they can see transparent facades with people behind them. The project also proposes a change in the function of the building.

The Youth Center as an Urban Common The new function the project invites into the area is a Youth Center. The choice of that particular function is determined by a few factors. First, in the area there are several educational facilities for all age groups- kindergarten, elementary school, secondary school, 2 universities. Given this surrounding, I believe the creation of a center that offer appealing after school activities for those particular groups is appropriate. Secondly, within the group strategy and the new intended concentration of women with children, families and students in the area, the creation of a safe “third space” for young people to spend their free time in becomes of crucial importance. The presence of a public space open to everyone in a site undoubtedly helps improve the quality of the environment. But it is not just about the added spatial value. It is in those spaces that social relations are formed. Living in the city means sharing it with others like you or as David Harvey explains “The city is the site where people of all sorts and classes mingle… to produce a common if perpetually changing and transitory life” (Harvey, 2012, p.67). The idea of the common is more than just a shared space within a city for public spaces does not necessarily make commons. According to Harvey, public spaces become common when people appropriate them and thus give them significance- through expressing their political views, for example. So “the common is… an unstable and malleable social relation between a particular self-denied social group and those aspects of its actually existing or yet-to-be-created social and/or physical environment deemed crucial to its life and livelihood” (Harvey, 2012,p.73).

In a way the youth center can become an urban common for the young people of the city. It meets the requirements of a place to be characterized as a common- it provides a gathering public place for individuals of all ethnic backgrounds. It is a place where they can freely express their views, follow their interests and thus it helps them form their personality. By appropriating it the users give it significance. Typically youth centers have special place and meaning within a community- they give opportunity to children and young adults to develop their physical, social, emotional and cognitive abilities. It also gives them the possibility to experience achievement, leadership, enjoyment, friendship and recognition. It helps their feeling of belonging in the city and in the community. Given those primary characteristics of the youth centers, it is safe to say that the presence of such buildings in the city contribute to the two aspects of health in the city- physical health and emotional health. It promotes attitude towards health from the early years of children development. In other words it tries to prevent the problem before it emerges into the life of the individual. The youth center offers opportunities for organized instructional programs for physical activities like dance, yoga, martial arts and in the same time for academic and arts programs such as music, crafts, painting and theater. Also an important part of the proper functioning of the center is the opportunities it provides for unstructured activities such as game playing, socializing, club meetings and outdoor play. The main concern in the development of such centers is the maintenance of safe and healthy environment. Conclusion The project answers the question of health in the city of Brussels by addressing the issues of the common space and establishing a feeling of belonging to the city. With putting the focus on young people, the aim of the intervention is to prevent the problems before they set roots into the life of the individual.

References: DAC & Cities (2014) JAN GEHL: MAKING HEALTHY CITIES. Available at: (Accessed 2 June 2014) Center for the Study of Social Policy (2012) Youth Thrive Available at: (Accesses 3 June 2014) Harvey, D. (2012 ) Rebel Cities: From the right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso Jacobs, J. (1961) The death and life of great American cities; The failure of town planning. New York: Random House. Whole building design guide (2010) Youth centers. Available at: (Accessed 6 May 2014)

Connecting the City  

reflection note for Urban Design project on the topic of "Health as Urban Common", Brussels