District-Scale Health and Wellness

katie_colorKatherine Vega 
Sustainability Associate, Public Health

In the Unites States, 75% of our health expenditures are attributed to chronic diseases . This realization has prompted a shift toward preventative health measures for individuals and entire communities. Still, it is important to understand that active living is influenced by much more than personal behavioral choice. The built environment plays a significant role in human health to either support a healthy lifestyle or serve as a barrier to health for individuals. Research has continually found connections between built environments that emphasize safe and healthy communities with better human health and wellbeing. A spectrum of Millennials to Baby Boomers who want to age in place, have begun exploring and seeking opportunities to be healthy in their homes, workplaces, schools, public spaces, and communities. This demand has triggered built environment designers and planners to enlist healthy community design that can positively affect physical and mental health.

HealthyIntegrating Health into the Built Environment

A healthy built environment includes more than hospitals, and medical facilities to treat illness. It is an environment that promotes health at a district-scale by incorporating energy efficient buildings, promoting effective resource use, establishing quality control of air and water, and creating regenerative social, economic, and environmental systems. In a sense, it is the creation of a healthy ecosystem that integrates health into various aspects of building construction, land use, city governance, resource provision, and community development. For example, induction of a policy for ‘complete streets’ in a city Master Plan can promote multi-modal transportation use among citizens ultimately increasing pedestrian physical activity and reducing harmful emissions from car use. Support of urban agriculture in the form of community gardens and living walls not only provides the neighborhood with local fresh foods but also stimulates social cohesion among community members. The creation of more walkable neighborhoods with features that accommodate citizens of all abilities offers residents easy, close access to amenities and essential services to live their daily lives. Focusing on health at a district scale has the ability to accelerate urban regeneration starting with small innovations that grow to leverage long-term investment and public policy .

Planning for Health

District-scale solutions that address health in the built environment are best created by transdisciplinary teams who aim to promote population health, economic growth, and social sustainability. These teams consist of researchers, private developers, planners, city officials, business owners, community-based organizations, and other key members of the community who bring their expertise to the table in order to explore various determinants of health in the built environment. These diverse individuals have the insight and experience to discuss current conditions within the community, decide on a common agenda and key priorities, and set sustainability goals that will benefit the physical, financial, and environmental health of the community. The creation of a healthy district-scale built environment proves to be a complex process but has incredible potential to promote the health of an entire population. With the rapid growth of urban populations, sustained healthy built environments can serve as a formidable defense against environmental threats, changing lifestyle patterns, and increased demand for resources. The healthy choice becomes the easy choice when health is integrated into the very infrastructure and culture of a community.

Sources:

[1] Urban Land Institute. Intersections: Health and the Built Environment. Washington, D.C.: Urban Land Institute, 2013.

[2] EcoDistricts. The EcoDistricts Protocol version 1.0. Portland, OR: EcoDistricts, 2016.

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The Power of Perception

By: Evan Hughes
Sustainable Building Associate

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s something we’re taught at an early age that reminds us to keep an open mind and try new things. It may be a trite phrase, but it’s still a valuable piece of advice.

Having said that, it can be difficult to avoid forming judgments based on a quick first impression. It’s why you refuse to try the weird appetizer your friend recommended (it’s actually delicious).  Or why you might assume that the guy in the coffee shop wearing a scarf in July is insufferable and pretentious (he’s actually really down to earth). Or why you might assume that the pretty girl in your marketing class is out of your league (she totally is, I’m sorry.) Research conducted in the United States and Africa has shown that similar negative assumptions can influence the materials people choose when building a new home. One such material is rammed earth, an earth-building technique that involves compressing a mixture of soil, lime, and other additives between large wooden molds to form monolithic walls. A survey distributed to construction professionals in Kansas found that, while the appearance and environmentally friendly nature of rammed earth was perceived positively, its adoption had been limited by the assumption that it was antiquated and structurally unsafe.

Courtesy of greenupgrader.com

In Africa, similar surveys have revealed an association between earthen homes, low social standing, and poverty. The same surveys also show that people associate modern materials like concrete and steel with wealth and high performance. These associations create a vicious cycle where only the poor build with earth. Many of these people have no training in earth building and no background in engineering, so their homes may be more susceptible to erosion or structural failure. When these problems inevitably arise, it simply fuels the preexisting bias against earth, and the cycle continues.

Overcoming these negative assumptions takes time. It also requires that people, particularly contractors and material suppliers, work to understand the advantages and disadvantages of non-conventional materials. Knowing when, where, and how to implement environmentally friendly materials and methods can help increase the public’s awareness of their economic and environmental benefits, particularly in the residential construction market. Effective marketing is also critical to increasing awareness and market penetration of non-conventional materials. Tell a client that they should build with a certain material because it’s “the right thing to do,” and you may end up in a debate and possibly a fist fight, depending on where you are. Tell a client that they should build with the same material because it will save them money, lower their energy bills, and will make their home a more pleasant place to live, work, or raise children, and their response will probably be less combative and more inquisitive. It’s easy to label another person’s opinion as stupid or inconsequential. It’s more difficult to argue with the financial and material savings that sustainable materials have to offer.

Courtesy of bee-inc.com

No one material is perfect for all climates and agreeable to all tastes. But by increasing awareness of alternatives to concrete, timber, fired brick, and steel, contractors can go a long way toward reducing the environmental and ecological impact of the construction industry. By doing research of their own, the public can better understand the advantages and disadvantages of non-conventional materials and make informed decisions based on hard data, rather than assumptions and first impressions.

References
Kraus, C. (2012). On perceptions of rammed earth. Rammed Earth Conservation, 157-162

Zami, M. S., & Lee, A. (2011). Inhibitors of Adopting Stabilised Earth Construction to Address Urban Low Cost Housing Crisis: An understanding by construction professionals. Journal of Building Appraisal, 6(3), 227-240.

Gooding, D. E., & Thomas, T. H. (1995). The potential of cement-stabilised building blocks as an urban building material in developing countries. ODA report, School of Engineering. UK: University of Warwick.