Creating better cities by
improving the value of the public realm


Why are hamlets, villages, towns and cities more important than malls?

Europe2-180french-sq-alpsUrbacity’s research shows that hamlets, villages, towns and cities generate a wider spectrum of activity and greater levels of employment than malls, even when the retail floorspace is the same. Employment in traditional centres delivers between 2 and 5 times more non retail employment as that of malls and their immediate environs. Town centre planning should seek integrated urban environments with the public realm interface as the focus.

Public spaces or public realm within centres are at the foundation of civil society. When buildings work together and secure public space they inspire higher levels of economic and social activity. If architecture is representative of place, we are able to interpret local culture and personality. Town centre planning is largely about the quality of the public realm.


Since the invention of the supermarket and then the shopping mall in USA in the 1950s, and the organisation of retail into mega stores and mega chains in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain, our centres have lost a large part of their social, cultural and economic vitality. This is a price of an industrialised free market system. It is a big price. A price that we may also find in health and economic statistics. If we have no “place,” if we have little reason to celebrate our civil relationship with others, what does that do to our mental and physical health? As social performance is also linked to economic performance, the less we have opportunities to meet with others presumably the lower will our social and economic capital.

Town centre planning should always reference the settings for improved public health. Public health was the reason for the creation of the planning profession during the industrial revolution. We have forgotten these lessons. Limited research by Urnbacity shows that the type of urban setting established by good town centre planning and design has an effect on public health.

                                             Levels of Obesity

USA                                              33%

France                                           17%

New York City                               18%

Greenwich Village SoHo                  9%

                                 No Physical Exercise (adults)[1]

USA                                            34%

France                                         35%[2]

New York City                              26%

Greenwich Village SoHo              16%


For diabetes:

                                            Adult Diabetes

USA                                              6.8%

France                                           0.5%

New York City                                8%

Greenwich Village SoHo                 4%


For asthma in children:

                                   Hospitalisation rates per 1000

USA                                              2.7

France                                          1.0

New York City                               6.0

Greenwich Village SoHo               1.0


For heart disease:

                                   Deaths per 100,000 people

USA                                              804

France                                          39.8

New York City                               304

Grennwich Village SoHo               205

For cancer

                                    Deaths per 100,000 people


USA                                            186[3]

France                                         110[4]

New York City                             167

Greenwich Village SoHo              159


We have used France as the main comparable as USA and France are at opposite ends of the food and urban environment spectrum. However Greenwich Village is perhaps more European in its context than most of USA. We have chosen Greenwich Village for that very reason (plus the fact that these statistics exist for it). If town centre planning delivers good urban places in which town and village centres are at the foundation of the community, then perhaps our health performance will improve.

As driving or time spent in the motor car is positively correlated with obesity (Americans drive over 10,000 kms per annum to shop cf 6,000 here in Sydney - whereas total driving in Europe is between 25-33% of the USA figure), then this clearly has an affect on our health. If you walk to your daily shops, then your village is likely to include a number of specialty food retailers. The supermarket effectively drives such operators out of business. We pose the question, "is society as a whole benefitting by supermarket dominance of the food environment?" Are we simply creating "external" costs by relying so heavily on the supermarket as the basis for our food? Maybe our hunting and gathering environment should be more diverse? This is an issue that is also linked to our dominant monocultural food production system. Is this all good for us?

[1] For “Physical Exercise” the typical measure is “Moderate exercise for at least 30 minutes at least 5 times per week OR vigorous exercise for 20 minutes at least 3 times per week.”

[2] For France the measure is “leisure time inactive” which is different to the USA measure – exercise in everyday life is not measured (the French for instance have one of the lowest gym memberships in the western world).

[4] Source: