The field of urban planning grew out of concerns for public health and welfare in the fast-growing industrial cities in the early 20th Century. These concerns were related to polluting and unsanitary conditions in the cities where tanneries and slaughter houses abutted homes and schools, and tall skyscrapers blocked light and air from streets. Poor living conditions for city residents often resulted in infectious disease outbreaks and public health emergencies.
To address the growing health concerns, local governments instituted restrictions on the type of uses that could locate close to residential areas. These restrictions went far beyond the 19th Century Common Law Theory of Nuisance that addressed public health and safety by prohibiting ‘unreasonable’ uses of land to prevent similar outbreaks of infectious diseases.
By 1926, the US Supreme Court’s decision on Village of Euclid vs. Ambler Realty Co. established the right of local governments to control land use through zoning laws and introduced the concept of ‘Euclidean’ Zoning that segregated land uses to minimize conflicts. Improvements in the transportation system, including the construction of freeways, further weakened the connection between work, home, retail and other daily services, isolating them from one another and making them accessible only by car.
While these laws and trends prevented factories from locating close to neighborhoods, and offered a means to escape from the polluted city center, they also provided local governments the power to exclude and segregate communities, and supported the growth of suburbs. People were protected from infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera, but they now faced new epidemics such as obesity, asthma, heart disease and diabetes, all related to the design of the built environment.
The environmental movement in the 1970s gave rise to the environmental review process that was meant to protect it. Other urban planning concepts such as New Urbanism and Smart Growth are attempting to reverse the impacts of urban development policies of the previous decades. All these efforts attempted to return to the traditional neighborhoods and urban form that valued a mix of uses, pedestrian and transit amenities and compact development.
While the focus was on the design or the built environment, the underlying theme was the health of a community, defined in terms of the environment, economy and equity. As communities around the country begin to address public health in the design of the built environment, these recent efforts will strongly link policies on the design of the built environment with benefits and impacts on public health and wellbeing.