Design Choices and Public Health

Dec. 12, 2012

Ever thought about public health as a design challenge?  City and town designs can change the way people interact and participate in day-to-day activities and experiences, with architects and architecture building a framework for healthier living.

Ever thought about public health as a design challenge?  City and town designs can change the way people interact and participate in day-to-day activities and experiences, with architects and architecture building a framework for healthier living.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has issued a report that provides a roadmap for towns and cities looking to help their populations stay healthy by employing design techniques that encourage residents to increase their physical activity.

The report, Local Leaders: Healthier Communities Through Design, was released at Governing Magazine’s “Summit on Healthy Living,” and demonstrates how active lifestyles aided by positive design choices lead to a healthier population. Individuals who live in livable, mixed use communities, with options for transit weigh less, are more physically active, and experience less chronic disease.

“Architects play a key role in designing healthy environments,” says AIA CEO Robert Ivy, FAIA. “This report shows the benefits our profession can bring to establishing a built environment that encourages exercise and discourages a sedentary lifestyle.”

Key barometers of health suggest America is heading towards poor overall health, namely toward physical inactivity, obesity, and chronic disease. Studies, highlighted in the report, demonstrate that the median improvement in some aspect of physical activity for livable urban communities can be over 160%.

Studies also show that a community designed for exercise can prevent 90% of type two diabetes – as well as 50% of heart disease, site-specific cancers, and strokes. Better buildings and neighborhoods offer a comprehensive, cost-effective solution – as well as stimulate economic growth.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic disease is now the leading cause of death and disability as a result of inadequate nutrition, lack of physical activity, and environmental pollution.

The CDC estimates that three quarters of U.S. spending on health care currently goes toward treating chronic diseases. Chronic diseases are now also the leading cause of death and disability in the U.S., with 70% of all deaths attributed to chronic disease. Design interventions that create healthier communities can make an enormous difference in outcomes, leading to great reductions in chronic disease.

Some of the biggest cities in the U.S. are taking design into consideration to promote public health:

• New York City – A city-wide conversation has begun to promote healthier design through the Active Design Guidelines, Fit City conferences, and innovative urban design;

• Los Angeles – Advancing active mobility and healthier growth through living streets, public transit, and healthier community design with innovative policies and initiatives;

• Nashville – A firm commitment to become the healthiest city in the South by creating an active culture, improving access to fresh foods, and promoting healthier transportation within and across neighborhoods;

• Milwaukee – Revitalizing blighted brown fields for thriving light industry, healthier buildings, and neighborhood access to active recreation;

• Boston – Designing healthier, high-performance green affordable housing for better air quality;

• Portland – Creating communities for all ages with policy decisions that promote mobility, accessibility, and family-oriented affordable housing options;

• Austin – Developing complete, more active communities through complete streets, better neighborhood design, and health-promoting public spaces; and

• Seattle – Envisioning the future through a health-promoting EcoDistrict with healthier buildings, better mobility, improved access to fresh foods, and more social equity.

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