Adèle Naudé Santos, FAIA, is the dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a principal at San Francisco–based Santos Prescott and Associates, an award-winning firm focused on low-income housing, campus architecture, and socially conscious design. Santos helped negotiate a partnership between the newly launched Center for Advanced Urbanism at MIT and the AIA’s Decade of Design initiative, which will seek to make design a catalyst within public health through research.

It doesn’t matter what kind of organization we represent, whether it’s the AIA or MIT, as long as we all recognize that there are serious public health problems to be solved. There are no easy answers. We need research and interdisciplinary thinking to compare cities, which are all fundamentally different, and to take appropriate action within each city.

The word “city” is a slippery one. What defines a city? You could go by the numbers, say anything over 100,000 people, but then if you look at a country like China, the central government decides what should be categorized as a “city.” I prefer the terms “urbanity” and “urbanism.” They suggest density, as well as a more sophisticated method for analysis and way of thinking. The definition of urbanism also requires some flexibility given that cultural reflection is part of this, too. MIT is working with institutions in China, for instance, and they know that they want to engage something more tangible than algorithms to define urban form. The layers that are part and parcel of urban placemaking and order in the environment are complex. By order I don’t mean roadways and transportation systems; I mean infrastructure, both physical and virtual at multiple scales.

Of course, the dense multilayer city is very attractive, but not for everybody. We have to be mindful of that in this partnership—or globally where a word such as “urbanism” might mean different things—in order to effectively serve a different population. I grew up in Africa and spent a lot of time dealing with sprawling settlements. My early career there was all in housing, dealing with the full spectrum of the haves and the have-nots, business districts and barrios, and cities that were, at times, completely out of control.

Great cities have a great deal of variation, and variation is beneficial to urbanism. A lot of architecture schools today say that they’re “thinking about” urbanism, but at MIT we really wanted to focus on it, which is why we launched the Center for Advanced Urbanism this past January. When you’re at a place like MIT, you can bring in interdisciplinary groups from architecture, planning, and engineering to collaborate on the design of infrastructure that is durable and environments that are sustainable, and make community health a major design and planning issue. —As told to William Richards