Research Overview

Big Picture: My work focuses on the social aspects of physical planning, urban design, and urban development. The big issue behind this research and practice is how to make more sustainable and healthy cities and the site of most of that research has been in suburbs and smaller cities. I have also developed a number of tools for research and practice and been a reflective practitioner.

Healthy Places and Planned Suburbs

Currently, I am most interested in how to develop healthier places in a suburbanizing world. Specific projects focus on how to improve housing for aging particularly for those who are frail, how to plan communities to be healthier, and the role of urban density in health. My overall contribution has been to point out the complexity of making healthier places, both comprehensive new towns and incremental interventions, as well as developing new ways of measuring those environments.

In my professional work as a planner, and in my research, I have addressed this problem in several ways—studying and participating in plans, developing tools, and reflecting on practices in a range of different projects. My main contributions have been in three areas.

  • First, I have examined innovative and high-density planning and design projects typically in suburbs and smaller cities, asking whether they achieve the benefits proponents claim for them particularly related to sustainability, health, and well-being. Some of this work analyzed the actual and potential success of planned alternatives to sprawl, such as new towns and new neighborhoods. Several issues prove to be difficult to deal with in planning better places and provide a focus for detailed investigations. These include achieving walkability, planning higher density and affordable housing, design for aging, supporting social diversity, and developing appropriate green space. The big picture finding is that planning can make better places but the kinds of changes that are needed are frequently far larger than proponents assume.
  • Second, I have unpacked one particular approach to better planning, the idea of using physical places to improve health. One strand of this work assessed healthy environments at the neighborhood scale, particularly physical activity and food environments, as well as the interplay between densification and green space. I have also looked more broadly at the wide range of intersections between health and environments, looking for the bigger picture of these connections. The big idea behind this work is that there are many connections between health and place and that the recent focus on food and physical activity, while useful, is too narrow. Many of these projects have been located in suburban sites or involved work with suburban municipalities. In both cases, I have developed tools for research and practice including GIS protocols, surveys, audits, health assessment tools, and participatory processes. I have written two books of guidelines.
  • Finally, I have investigated how to connect research and practice in these areas. I have focused on the different forms of research and investigation in planning and design, and on how research can inform the process and substance of planning.

Play in the planned community of Almere, NL

Innovative Planning and Design in Suburbs and Smaller Cities: My first book on suburbs, Constructing Suburbs (1999, Routledge/Gordon and Breach), looked at competing approaches evident in planning for suburban development in Australia in the 1990s. Its focus was on how issues of sustainability and urban growth were articulated and how tradeoffs were made about social and ecological goals.

My next book, Reforming Suburbia (2005, University of California Press), used multiple methods to reassess three of the largest and most successful of the U.S. new towns (“planned communities”) of the 1960s and 1970s planned as intentional alternatives to problems urban sprawl–social, aesthetic, economic, and environmental. These developments used many of the techniques currently evident in smart growth and new urbanist developments with varying levels of success.

A series of articles on planned communities, co-authored with Katherine Crewe, continued this work, examining aesthetic, environmental, and social issues in a set of 20 such developments in the US, Europe, Japan, and Australia, built from the 1950s through the 2000s. The articles drew lessons about the success of model communities in providing a real alternative to current development practices; the articles also compare different urban planning and urban design philosophies.

Most recently I have worked on examining suburbia more globally, investigating how to define it and how to think about a future where most urban growth will be in suburbs. This engages the variety of suburbs and key topics such as density, livability, well-being, and health.

China’s Urban Communities (2016, Birkhäuser) co-authored with Peter Rowe and Har Ye Kan, explores 25 communities in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Suzhou, developed or redeveloped over the last three decades. They represent  “market housing by ordinary real-estate developers for the emerging middle and upper middle class, by governments as social housing and housing for government workers, and as worker housing.”  Focusing on issues of well-being, community formation, and building type the book finds that these diverse neighborhoods are typically good places to live, with more spacious houses and green space than in the past, and typically good access to local services. However, the strong social ties of the dan wei or work unit system have eroded over time, air and water quality can be poor, many people live in crowded conditions (particularly those without residence permits), commutes can be long, and megaplot enclaves, while having a long history in China, pose continuing problems for accessibility. As such neighborhoods age, they provide opportunities for rebuilding to better connect the parts of the city, diversify the housing units, make green and common spaces more useful, and reconsider lower density traditions in some areas. Many promising examples are already in existence.

Recent work in Mexico compiled strategies and tools for densifying existing metropolitan areas; developing greenfield sites; and retrofitting existing areas (including existing suburbs).

A 2021 edited book with Richard Peiser, Towards 21st Century New Towns: Past, Present, Prospects (Penn Press) examined new towns globally.

  • Through 2026 I am investigating planning for age-friendly and healthy communities in several cities around the world using methods rather similar to those I have used to study new towns. I am interested in whether and how such programs make a difference when looked at over decades. I am also interested in unpacking some key concepts used in thinking about suburbs such as sprawl and urban development.

Healthy Environments: Other research has looked in more depth at specific aspects of healthy environments.

Designing Small Parks (2005, Wiley, with Laura Musacchio), explored the tensions between designing open spaces for social and ecological goals, focusing on small sites where and contradictions are most difficult to resolve.

More technical projects have examined how the built environment affects physical activity and food access in adults and adolescents (funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Institutes of Health including the Twin Cities Walking Study, TREC-IDEA, ECHO, and EAT-III projects).

In addition, I have done work drawing out the practical implications of research on a range of connections between health and environments from social networks to air quality (for example the Design for Health project and the newer Health and Places Initiative [HAPI]). The big idea behind this work is that there are many connections between health and place and that the recent focus on food and physical activity, while useful, is too narrow. These activities have won national awards from the American Planning Association and the Environmental Design Research Association. Many of these projects have been located in suburban sites or involved work with suburban municipalities. The project links page provides more detail.

Creating Healthy Neighborhoods: Evidence-based Planning and Design Strategies (APA Planners Press/Routledge, 2017), co-authored with Emily Salomon and Laura Smead, bridges the gap research on health and place and neighborhood planning and design: synthesizing and adapting research findings, proposing how to make informed decisions in the absence of research, and embedding this in a health-informed planning process.

Bangalore India Ann Forsyth Phot

Pedestrians in suburban Bangalore, India

  • Through 2026 I am continuing work on how to develop environments for aging including how climate change will make it more difficult to age in place, how technologies can help older people in homes and neighborhoods, and identifying potential innovations in housing and neighborhood design. I am also reflecting on the different approaches to measuring and assessing healthy places.

Reflective Practice/Process of Planning and Design

As a reflective practitioner, I have also stepped back, writing articles dealing with some broader questions related to the practice of planning, design, and research. For example, I have authored or co-authored articles defining the range of practice approaches used in landscape architecture, community design center structures, reflecting on women and the architectural star system, outlining different cultures of planning research, critiquing evidence-based practice, and articulating a typology of environmental design research approaches. These draw on a number of long-running projects that mixed research, practice, and education while also working at the intersection of design and planning.

  • In 2004 I started developing a project that eventually became Design for Health and then the Health and Places Initiative. The middle phases of this project involved collaborations with Kevin Krizek (University of Colorado) and Carissa Schively Slotterback (University of Minnesota). This project has worked to integrate health into urban plans, ordinances, and planning processes. It has provided direct technical assistance and created planning-oriented health impact assessments, research summaries, image collections, planning advice documents, and a website. The project and related outputs have won four awards. I also do other independent work related to health and planning. I have now transitioned the work of the Health and Places Initiative to the new Healthy Places Design Lab.
  • From 2002-2007, I was director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota and professor of urban design with appointments in both the architecture and landscape architecture departments. This center examined urban design across the metropolitan landscape and doing research, community design, public education, and graduate teaching. It completed 15-25 urban planning and design projects each year. Projects and activities where I had a major role won 11 awards and commendations.
  • From 1993-1999, I taught at the University of Massachusetts where I was co-founder and co-director of the Urban Places Project (1995-2000), a collaboration with two landscape architects–Henry Lu and Patricia McGirr. This project worked on urban design and neighborhood planning projects in low-income neighborhoods, emphasizing participatory processes. Projects and programs where I had a major role won nine awards.

New Tools

To undertake this research and practice I have collaborated in creating a number of new tools and methods—an urban design inventory (the Irvine Minnesota Inventory), GIS protocols for measuring food and physical activity environments, planning-oriented health impact assessments (the Design for Health and Health and Places Initiative suites), a survey of walking and cycling, and award-winning participatory planning techniques (Minnesota Block Exercise/Corridor Housing Initiative, YouthPower Guide). I have also tested several tools for reliability and validity.

  • Through 2025 I am working on a project about the multiple ways to understand places at the neighborhood and city level.