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Courtyard housing in North America: Chinese design for health and happiness

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Health and happiness are fundamental to human quality of life. The Healthy Cities or Happy Cities movement has been endorsed by the WHO since 1986, and a Healthy House or Happy Home is a critical component of a healthy city or a happy city. Nevertheless, the concept has not been fully explored. Existing literature on the healthy house has often focused on the technical, economic, environmental or biochemical aspects, while current scholarship on the happy home commonly centers on interior decoration. Using both qualitative and quantitative evidence gathered from ethnic Chinese living in the United States and Canada, this article proposes that the Courtyard is a central element to promote social and cultural health and happiness of residents. It further presents four courtyard garden house design models that combine a sense of privacy with a feeling of community as represented in courtyard housing. The schemes may have universal implications.

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  1. The popularity of Parisian courtyard houses is clearly revealed in the large-scale 1739 Plan de Paris. This document depicts every permanent structure in the city and discloses much of the history of the urban courtyard townhouse of the Ile de France. The plan is stored in the Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane University Library, New Orleans (Edwards, 1993, p. 28).

  2. The courtyard house arrived in Spain with the first wave of Arab Muslim conquest from North Africa in about 750 CE. Spain, having been occupied by the Arabs for over 500 years, incorporated many Arab cultural patterns (Hall, 1976, p. 159). The concept took root and its development began. Spanish conquest in America was followed by settlements patterned after Iberian models influenced by Arab Muslim culture. The basic house type of the new towns and cities in Latin/Hispanic America was the courtyard house (Land, 2006, pp. 235–236).

  3. The Garden City movement was initiated by Sir Ebenezer Howard as a response to the congested and unhealthy conditions of working-class housing constructed during the industrial revolution. A key concept of the movement was the inclusion of green space into urban districts through appropriate site planning.


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The author’s gratitude goes to SUNY Distinguished Professor/Dr Ronald G. Knapp, and Professor/Dr Richard Harris at McMaster University, for their resources, reviews, constructive comments and valuable suggestions. Thanks are also due to a number of tutors and professors at Oxford Brookes University, and friends around the world who helped to test the online survey, and the residents who participated in the survey and interview. As well, the Journal’s three anonymous reviewers have made constructive comments on structural improvement to the article. The author is especially grateful to her parents, Junmin Zhang and Suzan Xiuzeng Li, for their unconditional support throughout the study.

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Correspondence to Donia Zhang.

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Zhang, D. Courtyard housing in North America: Chinese design for health and happiness. Urban Des Int 21, 281–297 (2016).

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