Health experts have long insisted that improving our public health requires improving the environment we live in. This, of course, includes environmental protection measures such as pollution control and management of resources but also attention to housing and living conditions. Part of the latter is a better understanding of how land use, residential development and architectural design impact our health and well-being.
“Virtually everything in our built environment is the way it is because someone designed it that way. We now realize that how we design the built environment may hold tremendous potential for addressing many of the nation’s greatest current public health concerns, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, injury, depression, violence, and social injustice,” says Dr. Richard Joseph Jackson, professor for environmental health sciences and urban planning at the School of Public Health of the University of California, Los Angeles.
There is a growing awareness in communities across the country of the need for health-promoting surroundings. And city planners begin to pay attention. They realize that sidewalks, bike paths, pedestrian zones and parks not only add to public safety but also enhance the quality of life in general. Here are a few examples:
- New York City has tasked its Department of Design and Construction to come up with new guidelines for the promotion of physical activity and health in architectural design to make future building projects “more livable and hospitable.” The guidelines are meant to give designers the tools to facilitate healthy lifestyle choices and to address health concerns such as obesity and diabetes through intelligent design, according to Arch Daily an architectural online magazine. New York City, of course, is already one of the most walkable cities in the country. Still, there is room for improvement, e.g. better public transportation to recreational facilities and open spaces.
- The Seattle Housing Authority has created a program called “Breathe Easy Homes,” which subsidizes affordable housing projects with features to improve air quality and reduce the risk of asthma, especially among children.
- The Denver Housing Authority uses a procedure called “Health Impact Assessment” for all its urban redevelopment plans as part of its wellness initiative, “Denver Healthy People 2020.” HIA is an assessment tool that has been put into practice in other parts of the world for many years and is increasingly accepted here as well.
“The [HIA] process is one of the foremost tools used to plan for healthy, sustainable communities. Used around the world, it promotes and assesses environmental effects upon physical and mental health. With land use policies, designs and plans influencing individual and community health, it is more important than ever to strengthen the relationship between planning and public health,” the agency states on its website.
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also recommends HIA as a good resource to measure the impact of community projects on health issues.
But governmental action alone will not suffice in the creation of more health-conducive living spaces. Private developers will have to come on board as well. To ensure that today’s students of architecture and urban planning will be more sensitive towards these issues, Clemson University in South Carolina offers a program called Architecture Plus Health, where relationships between architectural settings and the health of their inhabitants are researched. The goal is to teach future architects and designers how to apply their skills with the well-being of individuals and the larger population in mind, says Dr. David Allison, the program’s director.