Cities for Life
How Communities Can Recover from Trauma and Rebuild for Health
6 x 9
6 x 9
Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) Place Book Award Winner (2022)
What if cities around the world actively worked to promote the health and healing of all of their residents? Cities contribute to the traumas that cause unhealthy stress, with segregated neighborhoods, insecure housing, few playgrounds, environmental pollution, and unsafe streets, particularly for the poor and residents who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
Some cities around the world are already helping their communities heal by investing more in peacemaking and parks than in policing; focusing on community decision-making instead of data surveillance; changing regulations to permit more libraries than liquor stores; and building more affordable housing than highways. These cities are declaring racism a public health and climate change crisis, and taking the lead in generating equitable outcomes.
In Cities for Life, public health expert Jason Corburn shares lessons from three of these cities: Richmond, California; Medellín, Colombia; and Nairobi, Kenya. Corburn draws from his work with citizens, activists, and decision-makers in these cities over a ten-year period, as individuals and communities worked to heal from trauma—from gun violence, housing and food insecurity, and poverty. Corburn shows how any community can rebuild their social institutions, practices, and policies to be more focused on healing and health. This means not only centering those most traumatized in decision-making, Corburn explains, but confronting historically discriminatory, exclusionary, and racist urban institutions, and promoting healing-focused practices, place-making, and public policies.
Cities for Life is essential reading for urban planning, design, healthcare, and public health professionals as they work to reverse entrenched institutional practices through new policies, rules, norms, and laws that address their damage and promote health and healing.
"Cities for Life is recommended reading for all who are trying to gain better insight into urban studies, urban governance and urban living, like academicians, practitioners, social scientists and researchers, and especially those with an interest in the relationship between urban governance and mental health or community recovery and realities of Inclusive Planning through a participatory approach."
Cities and Health
"Corburn's holistic approach, supported by case studies of three very different cities in California, Colombia, and Kenya, provides background on how substantive and lasting changes can be engendered through a grassroots, citizen-centered project. Corburn's detailed descriptions of programs—for example, the Circumvent Garden Project in Medellín—offer a model for developing new projects. Undergraduates may embrace "health equity into all policies (HiAP)" yet find that working to embed HiAP in their projects is difficult. Corburn's case study on Richmond, CA, documents the creation of a Food Policy Council to address HiAP strategy objectives. This is an important addition to libraries supporting programs in public health, public history, social work, and political science."
"Corburn’s messaging that ‘human health happens in neighborhoods and communities not just in the doctor’s office’ is a crucial reckoning for the health equity movement. His focus on storytelling and historical place-making creates a compelling context for contemporary on-the-ground action. Cities for Life should be required reading for policymakers and activists in urban planning, public health, and environmental justice."
Peggy M. Shepard, co-founder and executive director, WE ACT for Environmental Justice
"Cities for Life amplifies community voices, capacities, and rich local ingenuity that need to be harnessed and incorporated into policy and practice. Following the increasing urbanization of poverty and associated health losses, this book is a must read for researchers, students, policy makers and practitioners."
Blessing Uchenna Mberu, Head of Urbanization and Wellbeing Unit, African Population and Health Research Center
Introduction: Designed for Life or Death
Box 1: Richmond, California: The Industrial City by the Bay
Box 2: Medellín, Colombia
Box 3: Nairobi, Kenya and the Mukuru Informal Settlement
Chapter 1: Cities for Trauma or Healing?
Chapter 2: Reducing Urban Violence through Street Love
Chapter 3: Slum Scientists Diagnosing Traumas
Chapter 4: Co-Creating Places for Urban Health and Healing
Chapter 5 –Resilience and Climate Justice in Medellín
Chapter 6. Putting Health Equity into all Urban Policies
Conclusion: Toward Cities that Heal
About the Author
Jason Corburn is a professor of urban planning and public health at UC Berkeley.
His new book, Cities for Life, investigates communities working to heal from trauma—from gun violence, housing and food insecurity, and poverty. In this talk, Corburn will discuss how cities can confront discriminatory, exclusionary, and racist urban institutions, and instead, promote healing-focused practices.
Moderated by Deirdre Pfeiffer, associate professor for the ASU School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.
You can purchase Cities for Life from the independently owned Changing Hands Bookstore, HERE.
What can communities do to promote the health and healing of all their residents?
Join the Smart Growth Network as Jason Corburn, professor of urban planning and public health at UC Berkeley, draws from a decade of work with communities in California, Kenya, and Columbia, to share ideas on how to help communities heal from trauma—from gun violence, housing, food insecurity, and poverty, and rebuild their social institutions, practices, and policies to be more focused on public health.
Participants of the live webinar are eligible for 1.5 AICP CM credits.
New date! -- This program was originally scheduled for March 2.
Cities contribute to the traumas that cause unhealthy stress, particularly for the poor and residents who have been impacted by systemic racism. Segregated neighborhoods, insecure housing, limited access to playgrounds and open space, environmental pollution and unsafe streets are several of the root causes of stress that compound in urban environments. But what if these places actively worked to promote the health and healing of all residents? The new book, Cities for Life, shares lessons from places that are confronting historically discriminatory, exclusionary and racist urban institutions and promoting healing-focused practices, placemaking and public policies. Come learn how you can encourage your own cities to take the lead in generating equitable outcomes by investing more in peacemaking and parks than in policing, focusing on community decision-making instead of data surveillance and building more affordable housing than highways.
As cities build and grow, they have a choice to make: to become healers from or creators of trauma.
Trauma in our built environment derives from systemic racism, disinvestment, and disenfranchisement of individuals in our cities. Climate change has the potential to greatly exacerbate these traumas. By investing in people and places, while also changing decision-making processes that have contributed to urban trauma, cities can lead the charge in promoting better health for their citizens and for the planet. climate mitigation and adaptation could heal those wounds.
During this conversation you’ll hear from public health experts, like Cities for Life author Jason Corburn, explaining the structures in place that lead to cities causing trauma and the possible solutions to healing from it. Expect to gain both theoretical understanding and tangible knowledge about this public health crisis.
PLEASE NOTE: We are giving away copies of Cities for Life to the first 100 attendees. To qualify for the free book, please include your full address in the registration form. Your address is not required to attend the webinar.
Read the Introduction below or download it here.
Uvalde. Buffalo. Tulsa. These are only the latest American cities to be engulfed in trauma from a ceaseless wave of gun violence. And the spasms of bloodshed those cities have endured are layered on top of ongoing harms, like structural racism, disinvestment, and inequity. Worse, those chronic traumas are now exacerbated by the powerful storms, floods, and heat waves of a changing climate.
“Rebuilding our cities for health has always been important,” said Dr. Lisa Patel of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, during a recent webinar hosted by Island Press. “But now, it feels particularly urgent.”
How can we build cities for health and healing? As Dr. Patel and her co-panelists explained, cities can heal by investing in people and places, by mitigating stressors like housing and food insecurity, and by nurturing positive social connections.
More fundamentally, they must shift from a myopic focus on problems, said Jason Corburn, author of Cities for Life: How Communities Can Recover from Trauma and Rebuild for Health (Island Press, 2022). Instead, they must tap the deep reserves of resilience and strength inherent in cities and their people – asking, in effect: “What’s right with you?”
That’s what happened in Richmond, California, a working-class “majority-minority” community north of San Francisco. Fifteen years ago, Richmond was among the top ten worst cities in the nation for gun violence, and among the lowest in life expectancy. In 2007, a group of community-based organizations teamed up with local government and researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, to craft a healing intervention. The idea was to empower community members to define—and address—their city’s challenges.
Dr. Corburn, who was part of the Berkeley team, said, “We didn’t come in and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got the solution for you, because we’re experts. Rather, we asked, ‘what do community members say about what matters to them and their health?’”
The answer, for many, was gun violence. “The threat of violence breaks down much of what we do in city planning and public health,” said Dr. Corburn. “People living in fear stop coming outside. They stop talking to neighbors. They may even stop going to school. And when public spaces are feared, they become over-surveilled and over-policed—and that is disproportionately applied to Black and Brown young men.” Violence, Dr. Corburn said, is both a cause – and a result – of trauma.
In response, Richmond launched a “peacemaker fellowship,” in which the city identified members of the community who were likely to be engaged in gun violence. Those “fellows” were given intensive 24/7 mentorship services over the course of 18 months. The fellowship offered an ecosystem of opportunities and resources to those society deemed expendable -- investing in them and seeing them as assets. “It's about loving them up,” said Dr. Corburn, “with the product of that love a reduction in gun homicides and a healthier community for all.”
Indeed, the peacemaker fellowship produced dramatic results: Richmond saw a 55% drop in homicides after the program was launched. And, unlike many American cities, Richmond did not see a spike in gun violence during the pandemic. Moreover, the program was cost-effective: for just over $1 million per year, the peacemaker fellowship averted millions spent on emergency response, healthcare, and criminal justice – not to mention the incalculable cost in lives and trauma.
Richmond residents also reclaimed public space. Community members took charge of the city’s Elm Playlot, once described as having “more used needles than blades of grass.” The Playlot now boasts a vegetable garden, a food distribution center, a petting zoo, and exercise programs for all ages. Importantly, residents were trained to build and manage the park, which they are now paid to maintain. Today, the park “provides jobs and economic investment, not just the physical space,” said Dr. Corburn.
Lessons from Richmond could help inform cities’ response to another major threat: climate change. According to Dr. Natasha DeJarnett, Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville Division of Environmental Medicine, climate change has disproportionate impacts on the young, the elderly, low-income people, and communities of color. “Climate change can be a threat multiplier for these populations,” said Dr. DeJarnett, “exacerbating the inequities that these groups already experience.”
At the same time, hard-hit communities have great strength and resilience: “These populations have largely been making a way out of no way,” said Dr. DeJarnett. “I love the perception of looking to the strengths for building climate resilience.”
Richmond also serves as a model of the “Health in All Policies” approach to urban planning. This approach is based on the idea that “health starts with where people live, work, learn, and play, and that community health is influenced by more than individual choices,” according to the Richmond city website. “One’s physical and social environments, along with local government decisions and actions that shape these environments, have an impact on health outcomes.”
It’s an approach that has been embraced by many other cities and states, said Anna Ricklin, Health in All Policies Manager for Fairfax County, Virginia. “We’re looking to shift how our partners and other agencies are thinking, how they approach their work, the kinds of data they’re using to drive decisions,” said Ricklin. “It’s about connecting the dots so they can see themselves as public health professionals – because anyone who is shaping the environment really is a public health professional.”
In Fairfax County, that has meant a focus on transportation – providing alternatives to cars and highways. Ricklin’s office also dove into data on heat-related illness and discovered that extreme heat is not just affecting the youngest and oldest residents: “We found that it was mostly able-bodied people who were working outside – landscapers and construction workers -- who were most vulnerable,” said Ricklin. Armed with that data, the county is considering what protections it can put in place to ensure their safety.
Indeed, by focusing on the most vulnerable, climate action plans offer an opportunity to heal the traumas caused by longstanding inequity. Climate mitigation and adaptation will necessitate investments, regulations, and policy changes at all levels of government, said Katherine Catalano of the American Public Health Association’s Center for Climate, Health and Equity.
To seize the opportunity provided by climate policy, meaningful public engagement is key: “You have much better outcomes when you are able to engage as many diverse opinions as possible,” said Catalano. “Communities need to be engaged every step of the way,” she added. “Working with all stakeholders is the only way to develop solutions that will address the health burdens of climate while reducing disparities.”
The challenges are daunting, as climate change bears down on communities traumatized by violence and harmed by longstanding inequities. But solutions exist, in the minds, hearts and hands of those on the front lines of these challenges. The success we’ve seen in Richmond and other cities profiled in Dr. Corburn’s book “didn’t occur by miracle,” said Dr. Patel. “They were actively created and constructed by people coming together, despite their fears and differences, to build a vision for a new future.”