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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