Mindy Fullilove, a research psychiatrist at New York State University Psychiatric Institute, sees a connection between the ways our cities are designed and the health of their inhabitants. Fullilove, 62, also a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, first saw the connection between health and our built environment in 1989. The New Jersey native had been studying the AIDS epidemic for two years and found some research that surprised her: a proposal that the urban policies of the ‘70s—including such things as planned city shrinkage—had been instrumental in spreading the disease. “At first, I thought about AIDS as a personal behavior,” she says, “but this [the paper] was saying that there are also larger contexts.” Since then, Fullilove has kept her research focused on the relationship between the collapse of communities and the decline in health. Her most recent book, Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Fractured Cities, which will be published in March with a foreward by Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, profiles three architects—Pittsburgh's Dan Rothschild and Ken Doyno of Rothschild Doyno Collaborative and France's Michel Cantal-Dupart of Atelier Cantal-Dupart—that are creating urban interventions that knit communities back together, and in turn, encourage healthier citizens. ARCHITECT talked to Fullilove, who will be the new public director for the AIA Board of Directors from December 2012 to 2015, about how she will use her research to help architects make our communities healthier.
How did you become interested in studying psychiatry as it relates to cities?
I was one of the first African Americans to start studying the AIDS epidemic back in 1988. And I read a paper that talked about urban policy and how that had contributed to the state of neighborhoods and to the spread of AIDS. As I was studying the neighborhoods, I met a French urbanist, Michel Cantal-Dupart, and he said that if you want to study the neighborhoods, then you want to understand the cities.
How did urban policy contribute to the spread of AIDS, nationally and internationally?
It [that first paper about urban policy] was about a New York policy for planned shrinkage. The concept was that New York City was losing population, and it talked about how to shrink the city. The mechanism for clearing the land was that they closed fire stations and then [when the buildings caught fire] they let the buildings burn down, and that cleared the neighborhoods. It’s before we knew there was an AIDS epidemic, but AIDS was already in New York, quietly. So when the neighborhoods were burned down, the virus was dispersed. Part of the South Bronx for example, lost 80 percent of its housing. Destroying that much of the built environment also destroys the social foundation of good behavior, so you get violence, drug use, kids going into foster care … It creates a storm of problems. Hence my profound interest in what we can do to restore neighborhoods and create social functioning. It’s the thesis of my discipline that it’s the social connectivity that creates health and the possibility of democracy.
How will you share your research with the AIA as a board member?
It’s always helpful to have other people who see things differently. My 20 years of studying cities as a psychiatrist has mostly been talking to people about how they feel about neighborhoods. It’s very much about bringing the voice of the people in the neighborhood to the table; how people feel and the illnesses that will arise if they [those in charge of urban planning] do it wrong. I did a book called Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It [One World/Ballantine, June 2004], which was a study of urban renewal, what people lived through. What I found was that when their neighborhoods are torn apart, the people experience something like what plants experience when they’re torn out of the ground. So what do you do about that? I know I see it different from a health and safety perspective, but I think that it will help them see how to ride this [housing recovery] out safely, especially.
What do you think are the problems with today’s cities and suburbs?
All these centers of collective life, even very small towns, face the same problems. In my view, we’ve had too many policies that move people around and disturb the stability of our communities. And so how do we get stability? And then how do you help people work together? We have huge problems, global problems like global warming, and this recession, and massive shifts in the structure of employment; if you change the whole structure of work for a population, you’ve done something really big for people’s lives. So everybody is fighting, little groups are mad at each other, we’re kind of like a dysfunctional family right now. So how do we work through that and get from this paralysis to problem solving?
What has caused these shifts in population?
The massive structural changes in work and where you need to go to get work. But what I’ve studied is urban renewal, which cleared massive amounts of land. And then there’s the sort of more recent gentrification. All of these things destabilize and force people to move. Suburban areas are of course related to this. People should just stay in communities, stay in neighborhoods. But 25 percent of the U.S. population moves every year. That’s way too much. You can’t have that movement and have a functioning society. They’re moving because of policies that destabilize communities.
What are the solutions and how can architects help?
I just finished a book about this, called Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Fractured Cities (New Village Press, March 2013). It’s principally about two architects and their work, and then other community organizers. I think that there’s a huge amount that architects and planners can do to help us. The day-to-day work [of one of the architecture firms followed, Rothschild Doyno Collaborative] was a building [The Legacy] in Pittsburgh, in the Hill District, in the midst of a community that’s been through all of this disinvestment; it used to be 35,000 people, now it’s 9,000 people. The architects were thinking, “How do we make a building that’s a good neighbor, and that’s an extroverted building, and really does work?” Think of an outgoing gregarious person, the kind of person you want at a party. And here's this street that’s in really bad shape, and they say, “What can we do to have a building to make a party?” Architects know how to do that. That’s what they live for. Their whole training in school is being given weird problems. So if you say, “I’m going to give you money for one building, and the whole neighborhood is a mess, and I want you to change the whole neighborhood with the building,” ... they love that.
Was the building successful in enlivening the neighborhood?
It was hugely successful. The neighborhood had a big connection to jazz, and conceptually they wanted to connect to that history. They said, “Jazz is spatial, the notes occupy certain space on the bar, and let’s think of the pieces of the building as notes, so it could be syncopated like jazz.” They made the sections of building different widths, like jazz. When you’re walking down the street and every building is the same, it’s boring. But differences bring a street to life. It’s beautiful, it’s interesting, it’s respectful. On other levels of scale, in Pittsburgh, some architects [in the past] put a ring road around the East of Liberty downtown shopping area, which was the third-largest shopping center in Pennsylvania, and it killed the center and the whole neighborhood. They [Rothschild Doyno Collaborative] had to figure out how to make the road right again. And then they make a new program for the street and the building and, all of a sudden, it comes back to life. Those are things that I’ve seen that architects and planners can do that are desperately needed in our cities.
This interview has been edited and condensed.