[Image description: a bicycle rack fashioned to look like human bipedal legs running, as if a series in motion, appears outside of a beige office building. In the background, a billboard advertises a 12-minute wait time at the emergency room. It is a bright day. A parking lot is visible]
What is a good life?
A livable city?
A healthy place?
A habitable world?
Enlivened City studies the relationships between life, health, and environment in the early-twenty-first century global phenomena of “livable” and “healthy” cities. It focuses, in particular, on the politics of concepts such as vitality, health, and wellness, of urban materializing processes such as real estate development and transportation advocacy, and of the interplays of human and non-human entities in defining the urban good life. Following my earlier work on design as a material-discursive practice, a phenomenon of knowing-making, this project traces the ways that ideas of the healthy body, livable city, and habitable world come to shape the everyday life of built environments, with both affordances and consequences for the shifting populations of urban inhabitants. Where livable cities attempt to restore or revitalize both human bodies and natural environments, what role can critical perspectives on health, life, embodiment, and space--particularly those emerging from disability justice and crip theory-- play in redefining livable worlds as accessible and justice-centered?
A growing literature on livable and healthy cities in the fields of public health and urban design appraises the capacities of Complete Streets, “irresistible staircases,” greenways and bicycle paths, public art, sustainable design, and access to fresh foods to improve and extend the lives of populations. This literature takes a largely positivist approach to public health and urban design, but rarely explores the politics or philosophies of livability and healthy places. By contrast, critical social scientists have explored the role of livable cities phenomena such as urban greenspace, active transportation, yoga, and farmer’s markets in deepening (rather than solving) urban inequality through phenomena such as “green gentrification.” Whereas this literature’s primary notion of inequality focuses on race and class, however, it has not yet interrogated the moral and political imperatives of health, vitality, and livability through the frameworks of critical health studies, critical disability studies, or feminist and crip technoscience studies, which have the potential to reveal the relations between ideal, naturalized, and normalized embodiments, naturecultures, and allocations of power in contemporary cities. Nor does has the existing critical literature addressed the environmental politics of livable cities through the critical frameworks of the environmental humanities, particularly eco-crip theory, which address the ways in which valued citizenship has been constructed through narratives of normate embodiment.
Enlivened City is a book-length interdisciplinary humanities account of the livable and healthy cities phenomenon that incorporates these critical frameworks to study public health-driven urban design and development, parks and greenways, Complete Streets, active transportation, green buildings, and food access. It focuses, in particular, on how the “healthy city” and “healthy places” phenomena, which include efforts as diverse as exercise promotion and disability accessibility, have emerged in relation to the “green city,” a construct of neoliberal urbanities, and “livability,” a general concept frequently invoked in relation to middle-class affordances and new urban living. My primary interest is in how ideas of health, life, body, and environment circulate within and through these phenomena, diffracting their meanings in relation to capital flows, spatial constructions, and both human and non-human life.
My primary site is the city of Nashville, Tennessee, a mid-sized city experiencing explosive rates of population growth and urban development where design and construction decisions, urban activism, and environmental conservation efforts are often carried out in the name of population and environmental health. Using the interdisciplinary tools of humanistic geography, philosophy and bioethics, history and ethnography, I study the diverse narratives, design processes, activist efforts, and art practices circulating amongst the makers, developers, inhabitants, and resisters of the livable and healthy city. In doing so, I explore the promises and challenges of design as a desiring practice carried out in the name of human and non-human health.
For whom are livable cities designed?
Who designs livable cities?
What kind of body politic does the livable city produce?
What kinds of futures do livable cities imagine?
What positivist and normative notions of health and population animate livable cities initiatives?
How do healthy and livable cities endorse notions of regeneration, vitality, and health?
What are the bioethics and biopolitics of regenerative design?
What kind of techno-ecology is the depaved parking lot?
Examining livable cities from the perspectives of their makers, users, and inhabitants, my historical and ethnographic interest is in the tensions between two distinct conceptions of “public” and “health:” the promotion of human population longevity through accelerated urban development and the pursuit of natural environmental and planetary health through regenerative design practices. While the literature advocating for livable cities treats human public health and the health of the natural environment as complementary public goods, I argue that the politics of “public bodies,” namely the ways that livable cities conjure a healthy, able body politic through improved sidewalks, bicycle paths, and staircases, and the politics of “healthy spaces,” primarily the application of urban design techniques to “heal” natural environments, are complex and often frictioned goals.
How do processes of restoring environmental health through design reinforce or deconstruct dominant notions of health and able-bodiedness?
Do urban trees have politics?
What new ways of being, relating, and designing do critical practices such as permaculture enable?
How can non-human and human resistance to the normative imagination of the livable city enliven new ways of thinking, being, and relating?