Caring for Our Common Home: the Challenge

Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D.(Arch.)

To achieve green, healthy cities, the urban environment must ensure the 3 principles of sustainability:

1.        Human sustainability:
That means good social and physical health for ALL – old and young, poor and well-to-do. In other words, health equity, and a special emphasis on the well-being of children

2.        Economical sustainability:
That means a city economy that grows at a pace that ensures a living wage for all, and that does not enrich the few at the expense of the majority.

3.        Ecological sustainability:
That means, an urban form that does not deplete the earth, that does not require vast energy resources to build and maintain, and does not cause massive pollution and climate change in the construction process.

A major barrier prevents us achieving these goals.

In city-making, there are two competing value systems at work.

The first is based on GDP. In this model, the city is seen as an economic engine, and its function is to fuel growth and raise standard of living.

The second is based on the value of the Quality of Life. In this model, the function of the city is the “care and culture” (Lewis Mumford) of human being and of the earth.

The GDP Goal:

The GDP model has governed the way cities have developed around the world in the 20th century. Success is measured financially. The fastest way to grow the economy is through construction. Maximizing construction is therefore thought to be the solution for success.

There are major flaws in the GDP system. Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson[1] criticized unbridled growth, which he declared led to soulless wealth. “He elucidated a new dream valuing quality of life above quantity of stuff[2]”. And Bobby Kennedy said on March 18, 1968 of the GDP[3] “it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”[4]

Based on the drive to increase GDP, in North America, Australia and other parts of the world we saw vast expanses of horizontal sprawl in the 20th century. The negative side effects were noticeable from the beginning: social isolation and depression of those left “home alone” (first housewives, then children); destruction of social networks and civic engagement (Putnam); unwalkability leading to obesity and related illnesses; over-dependence on the automobile and consumption of fossil fuels; over-consumption of manufactured goods and “planned obsolescence”; etc.

Vertical Sprawl

Today, suburban sprawl is being criticized from every angle, but it was thanks to the spotlight that Dick Jackson focused on the devastating effects of suburban sprawl on public health that finally forced the US and other countries to rein it in.

However, the construction industry is innovative. To satisfy the huge demand for growth and profits the industry now focuses on an even more insidious form of over-development – “vertical sprawl”, as Patrick Condon calls it. This has taken hold of cities around the world – including Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. However, this GDP model may prove to be even more toxic to humans and the planet than horizontal sprawl.

Extreme capitalism is a vicious cycle: the more high-rise we construct, the more isolated and depressed we feel, the more we consume, and the more dependent we are on the generators of GDP growth, big construction and big energy.

Global emphasis on high-rise:

Singapore and Hong Kong were encouraged by the US to become shining models for Asia and China of what can be achieved through the capitalist system. In order to rapidly increase GDP, Singapore embraced high-rise. But consumption and construction increase carbon dioxide emissions. In 2010, WWF President Yolanda Kakabadse observed “Singapore… is a society that maybe is one of the best examples of what we should NOT do.”[5]

The China Syndrome

China looked at Hong Kong and adopted the GDP model as the way to rapidly increase standard of living and national wealth. To maximize economic growth, China built over 100 tall and dense uninhabited “ghost” cities. In the process, they discovered that rapid growth involves some health problems for humans and the earth. Their life-threatening smog is only one side effect of their breakneck economic growth, – but paradoxically, this too can be counted on to increase GDP.

High-rise is not affordable

Hong Kong, is rapidly becoming unlivable. Moreover, massive construction of high-rise does not make housing more affordable. In fact it does the opposite. Hong Kong now has the LEAST affordable housing in the world. Prices have risen 120% since 2008.

As we have observed elsewhere[6], with the extraordinarily rapid increase of global wealth at the top of the economic heap, investors are seeking “safe deposit boxes in the sky” – condos where they do not intend to live, merely a safe place to store their wealth[7].

Being inherently more expensive to construct, high-rise is most suitable for luxury condos. The vast profits obtainable from high-rise inflate adjacent land prices, squeezing out affordable housing, and increasing inequality[8]. At a Vancouver, BC, conference, Sandy Garossino, a former crown prosecutor and community advocate, described[9] how the purchase of high-rise condos as foreign investments drove up the cost of housing for all, making it unaffordable for lower income groups, especially in downtown Vancouver and Coal Harbour.

In some Vancouver investment condo buildings, 75% of the units are absentee owners. This jeopardizes the economic viability of grocery stores and other businesses dependent on a local residential population, further risking the neighborhood's livability.

Increasing polarization

The phenomenal profits made by developers of these high-rise "condo-investment-banks" rapidly jack up the price of adjacent land. Future developers are then eager to build to similar heights to achieve similar profits, driving out affordable housing. According to the New York Times on May 19th, 2013, “The growth in high-end projects in Manhattan comes as housing for the working and middle class is in increasingly short supply in the city. These buildings are proving so profitable that they are warping the local real-estate market . . . As a result, the luxury building trend is driving up the overall cost of land in the city . . . As with many of these buildings, only about a quarter of the units will be occupied at any one time.”

On October 16, 2013, in the New York Times, cultural historian at New York University Thomas Bender decried these towers as “a flouting of the social distribution of wealth around the world. ‘These are the kinds of buildings that robber barons built . . . but it’s also what you see in rapidly developing societies where billionaires seek to distinguish themselves in the midst of poverty’.” Increasingly unequal wealth distribution is likely to cause a "precipitous collapse"[10] of the global industrial civilization, according to a NASA-funded study, a collapse that cannot be avoided by increasing technological efficiency. Even the World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, warned that a failure to tackle inequality risked huge social unrest[11]

Luxury condo investors are not investing in the life of the host city. They are unlikely to use these places, but their investments diminish quality of life for city residents. Their buildings throw the street into darkness and may cast a half-mile shadow across adjacent public places that constitute city residents’ "common wealth."

By increasing inequality, this “Extreme Capitalism” causes social and economic instability. This kind of building does not represent investment in community, or investment in a city, but investment in money purely for the sake of increasing personal wealth. As Pope Francis observes in his Encyclical: “56. In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.”[12]

Extreme capitalism is becoming increasingly obvious in places like India where the upper middle class is climbing in wealth and standard of living, and poverty is rapidly increasing and largely ignored.

The competition to construct the tallest building in the world  (currently the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, 2,722 foot high) intended to symbolize the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, is accompanied by extreme poverty. Twenty percent of the population of Dubai live below the poverty level.

With this type of construction, profit is privatized, loss is socialized. There is a complete economic imbalance – an overinvestment in private property, and underinvestment in the public realm – the places in the city that should belong to EVERYONE, and that represent the “common wealth”.

We have seen these unbalanced planning priorities at work for a long time, leading to planners creating streets that are inhospitable for the pedestrian, unwalkable and unbikeable.

We all know how this has led to the world-wide disaster of obesity and chronic diseases such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, sleep apnea, asthma & liver disease.  And the wealthy oil-rich countries have slavishly followed these planning priorities. The United Arab Emirates, being totally auto-dependent, now has an obesity rate double the world average.

This emphasis on privacy over community has struck hard at children who have a developmental need to grow up within a thriving community. As a result, children suffer unprecedented levels of loneliness, depression, shyness, and they fail to develop good social skills. Bullying and violence are also the result of poor social skills.  (But all these problems increase the GDP!)

Teenagers growing up in high-rises have an especially difficult time. At this age, the chief developmental task is to learn social skills and become sociable – but high-rises do not provide a suitable environment for developing these skills.

In Tokyo, there are high levels of hikikomori – these are young people from teenagers to young adults, predominantly male, who shut themselves in their bedroom, refuse to go to school, and demand that their parents leave meals for them outside the door.

There are an estimated 700,000 hikikomori in Japan, and 1.55 million more on the verge of becoming hikikomori.

According to studies by Wong et al[13], Hong Kong is following the same path, currently with an estimated 18,500 hikikomori.

It has long been known that high-rise creates a more socially isolated living situation. While this may be welcome to some engaged in a high-stress, or socially fulfilling professional field (such as those in the stock market or entertainment world), for others, such as elders, small children and mothers raising small children, studies[14] show high-rise living can be extremely damaging to physical and mental health.


Most European cities have protected their public realm inherited from a more democratic age, but values are changing even here.

London is following Hong Kong and Dubai. As of April 2015, around 70 high-rises are currently in construction with nearly 200 more planned. Most will be luxury investment condos for foreign investors who will leave the buildings empty – doing nothing to ease the problems of ordinary Londoners who face soaring rents and house prices[15].

When the nearly 700-foot Tour Montparnasse was completed in 1973, it was considered such a blight on Paris’s skyline that the city introduced height restrictions on all future buildings. Parisians joke that the tower offers the best views of the city, because it is the only place from which you cannot see it. But now, Mayor Hidalgo wants Paris to join the “big boys club” of global cities with their tall shiny towers, and is supporting a proposal for a 42-story pyramidal wall and other mega-towers by “starchitects”.

Will Rome be the next to fall?

Instant cities?

In China, the Far East and the Middle East an even more deadly phenomenon is proliferating at an alarming rate – instant cities designed and built by global firms and corporations, then reproduced in widely divergent cultural settings. Such is the New Chengdo in China, designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architects for half a million inhabitants.

While promoted as being “sustainably designed” the primary goal seems to be economic – to colonize an area, boost national economy and attract foreign investments[16]. To Michelle Provoost who has studied these cities, the “eco-city” label appears to be largely “greenwashing”.

High-tech firms such as Phillips and Cisco are getting into the act, promoting the concept of “smart cities” as a new market for their products. New Songdo near Seoul, in South Korea, developed by Stan Gale and Cisco is a “standardized smart city”. It is “a city in a box” that they believe can be unpacked and assembled anywhere in the world. They have 8 “green cities” on the boards, and plan another 20.

“Songdo is just the beginning. No longer content to sell just plumbing, Cisco is teaming up with Gale, 3M, United Technologies (UTC), and the architects of Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) to enter the instant-city business. At a Cisco event near New Songdo last summer, Gale stunned the room by announcing plans to eventually roll out 20 new cities across China and India, using New Songdo as a template. In the spirit of Moore’s Law, he says, each will be done faster, better, cheaper, year after year.[17]

“Elfrink estimates that at least $500 billion will be earmarked for instant cities over the next decade… The Meixi Lake District will be larger than New Songdo and just as dense, smart, and green — and eerily familiar. This and every subsequent city will be standardized around Gale's partners' products: the same light fixtures, traffic signals, elevators, fuel cells, central air-conditioners — and TelePresence screens. The scope of his ambitions dovetails neatly with Cisco's.[18]

But these “Brave Neoliberal World” visions are now put in the shade by an even more megalomaniacal concept of the “Great” Vertical City by Ken King[19] – a mile high structure. These instant vertical cities can be erected a few miles from each other, leaving the earth devoted to agriculture.

The concerns about sustainability are valid, but does the architect have the slightest concept of how the city shapes culture and social interaction? What would happen to local culture in such a structure? What would happen to social traditions? How would living like this affect children and elders?

Cancerous development

It was Konrad Lorenz who first opened my eyes to the parallels between healthy and cancerous cells in the body and in the city: “If you look at a cancer under the microscope, a cross section with cells of healthy tissue, it looks exactly like an aerial view of a city in which the old sections are surrounded by new irregularly built regions or else by those that are monotonously geometrical – both are possible, after all. The parallels between the formation of malignant tumors and cities in a state of cultural decay are very wide ranging.[20]

I first explored this idea in my book Livable Cities Observed[21] and in subsequent talks. But there are far more parallels than I realized at that time.

Healthy cells

Malignant cells

Regular geometry

Overly large and irregular

Clear cellular boundaries

Broken boundaries

Connect to each other, monitor the health of adjacent cells, and form a mutually supportive community

Do not communicate with neighboring cells or their context

Slow growth and regeneration

Rapid, out of control proliferation

Perform a clear function within their context

Do their own thing irrespective of their context



Meanwhile, Ramray Bhatt at the University of California Life Sciences Division has been exploring similar issues: “Lastly, like the most debilitating characteristic of cancer, i.e., metastasis, ill-designed buildings and built environments cannibalize their surrounding urban landscapes by growing, dwarfing, and pushing out smaller and traditionally built structures at the interfaces. [22]

He continues: “A combination of globalization, postcolonial mimicry, and aspirational urges have left burgeoning cities in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and Brazil dotted with mega towers and zonings which parasitize on their surroundings through labor and energy demands creating even widening peripheries depleted of culture, diversity, and beauty.[23]

Mariano Bizzarri, a leading researcher in carcinogenesis, emphasizes that cancer growth depends not so much on the cell’s damaged DNA as on the cell’s three-dimensional biochemical and biophysical microenvironment. In the language of the city-organism, this suggests that cancerous development occurs where there is both a breakdown in the social urban fabric and the physical urban fabric.

The health of the social urban fabric lies in the degree to which community exists, or at least the degree to which people interact with each other in the public realm. The health of the built urban fabric lies in the degree to which buildings relate to each other, speak a common language, and facilitate communication between people inside the building and those in the public realm.

For city-makers like us, then, the KEY to undoing these ills is to focus on the public realm – the “common good” – the places that connect us, and the way buildings relate to the public realm. It is the public realm that gives all of us QUALITY OF LIFE.

Adherence to the GDP model has led us into a process that Pope Francis calls “rapidification”[24]. We are following the fastest route to increasing profits (for developers and bankers) and, in so doing, we are making our cities unhealthy, inequitable, unlivable and unsustainable.

We do not have to slavishly follow the GDP model. Today, there are many efforts around the world to develop an alternate index of success, an index that will reevaluate the costs – to human health and well-being, and to the health and sustainability of the planet – created by the GDP model, and that will guide a wiser municipal, national and global decision-making process. The economist Hazel Henderson has led this effort with her Quality of Life Indicators[25]. Another indicator is the GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator)[26]. Others include the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW)[27]; the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Index (LPI)[28]; and London’s Happy Planet Index (HPI)[29]; as well as Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index[30]. IMCL also developed Quality of Life Indicators.

IMCL Quality of Life Indicators:

IMCL states that the goal of the city is to increase quality of life, which is not measured by an economic scale but by health, happiness, and sustainability.

This value system is characterized by Mumford’s dictum that the best economy of cities is the “care and culture” of human beings. In this view, the primary function of a city is to increase health and well-being, to civilize and humanize inhabitants. The development of each person to his or her fullest potential is given high priority. Providing a context in which attitudes of compassion and mutual responsibility can flourish is understood to be the city’s highest task. The well-being of some at the expense of others is not acceptable. The wisdom of cities, in this view, is the understanding of how health and well-being are affected by the built environment. This view is founded in philosophers of the human condition; it is expressed in the work of Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, and others; and it forms the foundation for the International Making Cities Livable movement.

IMCL pays special attention to children because the environment children grow up in affects all aspects of their development, and can damage their physical and emotional health for the rest of their life. We propose that if we consider how all our city-making decisions affect children, we shall begin to create healthy, sustainable cities for all.


Quality of Life

·      Goal: Increase economic growth

·      Focus: Construction industry

·      emphasizes cities as economic machines

·      stresses enterprise, independence and privacy

·      favors most productive groups: neglects those less productive

·      accepts suffering & marginality as the price for progress

·      costs of ill health, crime & social problems are economically valued

·      segregates functions & persons

·      regulation of well being is by technology

·      high rate of crime, drug & alcohol use

·      charges a fee for good experiences


·      Goal: Increase quality of life

·      Focus: Health & well-being

·      emphasizes humanizing and civilizing functions of cities

·      stresses trust, compassion, mutual responsibility

·      values wisdom; the understanding of the city as a “system”

·      does not accept suffering as a price

·      human processes are valued

·      stresses mixed use: heterogeneity of population

·      expresses hospitality and accessibility

·      regulation of well being is by people

·      low rate of crime, drug & alcohol use

·      emphasizes experiences that are free



[1] “Worst of all, expansion is eroding the precious and time-honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference… The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents … It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” President Lyndon Johnson, May 22, 1964 to graduates at the University of Michigan.

[3] Then called Gross National Product (GNP)

[4] “Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. 

It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. 

It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. 

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” Robert Kennedy, University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

[7] As Jonathan J. Miller of the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel explained in the New York Times on November 4th, 2013, “We’re building the equivalent of bank safe deposit boxes in the sky that buyers can put all their valuables in and rarely visit.” Nancy Packes, a real estate consultant and marketing executive airily stated in the New York Times on October 16th, 2013, “Price really has no relevance . . . High net worth individuals look at real estate today not as a place to live, but as an investment . . . It’s more stable than currency, bonds or stocks.” In the same article, Jonathan Miller asserted, “Height is where the profit is . . . The higher you go, the higher the price you can get.” In Manhattan, 30% to 40% of all condo buyers are now estimated to be foreigners.

[8] In the high-rise condo waterfront area of Coal Harbour, Vancouver, BC, up to one in four condos is empty, according to UBC planning professor Andrew Yan. In downtown, there are so many empty condos that if you put them all together, they would make up 35 towers, each 20 stories high. 

[13] Wong et al. The prevalence and correlates of severe social withdrawal (hikikomori) in Hong Kong. Int J. Soc Psychiatry. 2015 Jun;61(4):330-42. doi: 10.1177/0020764014543711. Epub 2014 Jul 24.

[14] Robert Gifford. (2007)  The Consequences of Living in High-Rise Buildings.  Architectural Science Review.

Gary Evans et al (2003) . Housing and Mental Health. A Review of the Evidence and a Methodological and Conceptual Critique. J of Social Issues. Vol 59, No 3. p 475-500

[16] See Michelle Provoost’s Strelka talk at

[18] ibid

[20] Lorenz goes on to propose a connection between undifferentiated urban sprawl, and social problems. “You find the highest incidence of crime in the ugliest parts of town. The Neuerlaa district of Vienna is both the police commissioner’s biggest headache and the ugliest thing that was every built in Austria. That such a thing could have been built is explained among other things , by the fact that architects have become blind to natural harmonies, to perceiving harmonies with their senses..”  Konrad Lorenz, (1990) On Life and Living. New York, St. Martin’s Press. Pp. 37-38.

[21] Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard & Henry L Lennard, (1993) Livable Cities Observed. Carmel, CA. Gondolier Press.

[22] Ramray Bhatt. “Understanding Complexity through Pattern Languages in Biological and Man-Made architectures: Comparisons between Biological and Arhitectonic Patterns. Archnet-IJAR, Volume 8 - Issue 2 – July 2014 - (08-19)

[23] Ibid