Does the phrase “built environment” strike you as odd? When thinking about the word “environment,” does your brain conjure up images of sweeping meadows and lush green forests? Consider this: Cities provide a habitat, of sorts, for billions of people worldwide. Many different species live in and interact with human-built spaces, just as many different species live in meadows and forests. Built environments are subject to traditional ecological issues such as pollution, as well as unique issues such as traffic and overcrowding. If we take the translation of the German word for “environment”–umwelt, literally meaning “around-world”–at face value, then the environment is everything that surrounds us. Cities and buildings not only surround us, they form an integral part of many people’s everyday lives. In this way, cities are an environment of their own.
Urban planners focus on the way that people perceive and interact with built space as an integral part of their work, and for good reason. The design of built environments can have profound impacts on the daily lives of people who live in them. When traveling abroad, students often notice the differences between the built environments of their homes and the places they are visiting, even if they do not frame the experience in these particular terms. In his post “First Impressions,” Ian Macdonald recounts his first days in the Chinese city of Jinan. His post is filled with vivid details about the sensation of driving into the city on an empty highway, passing by empty landscapes alternating with skyscrapers and construction sites. Later on, Ian describes the chaotic hustle of the city during the day when it is filled with pedestrians and motorists. As with many other overseas posts from China, he mentions the ever-present smog, describing the air as a “dim, somewhat opaque, dirty orange.” Ian’s writing seems to place you in the scene with him; you can feel the eerie stillness of driving past half-constructed skyscrapers at night and the overwhelming sensation of navigating Jinan’s streets amidst masses of pedestrians and honking cars.
Other aspects of the built environment have more tangible physical effects. Abbey Griscom wrote about her experience exploring New Delhi this past fall, and the ways in which gender discrimination is built into the city itself. She uses public restrooms as a primary example of inequalities in the city–Delhi has 3,712 public toilets for men and only 269 for women. The lack of bathroom accessibility serves as a constant physical reminder that Delhi’s public space was not designed with women’s needs in mind; Abbey writes, “Physical spaces, i.e. bathrooms, are cultural reminders of who is supposed to be occupying certain spaces.” She also points out that the gender symbols used to identify women’s bathrooms often contain imagery revealing societal standards of dress and grooming. Overall, public restrooms in Delhi and other Indian cities seem to govern women’s public behavior, both explicitly via the lack of women’s restrooms and implicitly through bathroom signs and other images encouraging certain beauty standards. By looking at what is prioritized and what is left out in the design of Delhi’s built environment, we can perhaps begin to think more deeply about the values that have gone into the design of other cities that are familiar to us.
Built environments can also change drastically over time with changes in peoples’ priorities. Such is the case with Tempelhof, a former airport in the center of Berlin that was turned into an urban park after it closed. Mehtab Sal writes about the history of Tempelhof in an overseas blog post, chronicling its transformation from airport to park and its relationship to historical events such as the Berlin airlift. She also discusses the airport terminal’s current usage as a shelter for the refugees fleeing violence in Syria and other countries. It is interesting to consider how Tempelhof has changed to reflect the values of city planners and residents; the airport terminal was remodeled in the 1930’s to showcase the power of the Nazi party, closed in 2007 to reduce noise pollution and allow for the use of newer airports, and turned into a park in 2010. Today, in addition to housing refugees in the terminal, the park also provides a site for skateboarding, picnicking, and even music festivals–a reflection of many Berlin residents’ current values.
In many ways, the built environment is our environment–we can shape it to reflect our needs, wants, and values. Conversely, the choices urban planners and others make about the built environment can have profound effects on how people perceive and use the space around them, as well as who is included and excluded from certain spaces. As more and more people move into cities worldwide, considering the implications of urban planning decisions will only become more important. By reconceptualizing our notions of the environment to include both built and green spaces, rather than creating a dichotomy between them, we can better understand the value of both.