GOVERNING Summit on Healthy Living: Architecture for Health

Dec 10, 2012, 12:58 PM

This week, GOVERNING magazine will hold its second Summit on Healthy Living, in Atlanta, Ga. The summit will focus attention on healthier living and aims to provide leaders with model policy and outcome-based programs to help make a difference in their own communities.

Key goals include:

  • Engaging state and local leadership in building a healthier America across the generations from childhood to old age
  • Providing leaders with tools, information and relationships to build and sustain healthy communities
  • Creating a network of leaders from various communities and sectors to establish a national movement for healthier living

During the meeting, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) will present a new report, Local Leaders, Healthier Communities Through Design, which is an examination of the positive impacts design can have on health. The report looks at eight U.S. communities that are in the midst of design and architectural projects that create open spaces; offer easier access to recreation and transit; and provide ample opportunities for exercise.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Brooks Rainwater, director of public policy at the AIA, about the new report.

NewPublicHealth: Can you tell me about the presentation you will be making at the GOVERNING Summit?

Brooks Rainwater: The presentation at the GOVERNING Summit is going to be focused on the release of our report, Local Leaders, Healthier Communities through Design. This report is part of a series stretching back to 2007 where we focused on livable and sustainable communities. What we’re really trying to do with this report is to tie design and health together, and demonstrate through the positive projects that cities are doing throughout the country exactly how this can be done. Oftentimes when people think of health, the first thing that comes to mind is the medical industry and treating illness when individuals aren’t well. However, architects can help create healthier communities and — through preventative strategies for improving health — these can be designed into our cities, helping people from becoming sick in the first place.

What we really see with this is that by promoting development patterns that are more compact and closer to transit, shopping, restaurants, social services and community amenities, that this is the first part of a comprehensive systems level solution. Active lifestyles rely in large part on expanding the options for when, where and how people can live, work and play. That’s really what we see that design can do—it can offer options for people, whether that’s being able to walk to school or walk to a corner store or have a park nearby. All of these things — sidewalks, active design guidelines — can really set up a situation where design makes a difference in how people live their everyday lives.

NPH: What are some of the cities you will be showcasing at the summit?

Brooks Rainwater: We’re going to be talking about New York City and the citywide conversation happening there about promoting healthier designs with active design guidelines. They’ve been holding city conferences for a number of years now and they’ve also been focused on innovative urban design. The city’s High Line is a very clear example of that. The High Line is a public park built on a 1.45-mile-long elevated rail structure. Previously, the area the High Line was built on was a freight rail track, in operation from 1934 to 1980. What’s interesting about the Highline is that the economic benefits that it brings to the city through redevelopment surrounding it are enormous, and at the same time it’s offering people a way to improve public health.

>>Editor’s Note: The city of Paris has converted a rail line into an elevated park called the Promenade Plantée. Similar projects are in early the stages in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Chicago and Rotterdam.

We’re then looking at Los Angeles and what they’re doing there to advance active mobility and healthier growth through living streets, public transit and healthier community design with innovative policies and initiatives. They’ve been investing in transit programs there and have been really trying to redevelop the core of the city and kind of create those connections between the sprawling city that is Los Angeles. Architects out there have really been pushing active design as something that needs to be integrated into the core of the city.

NPH: What are some of the significant features of the High Line that make it new and significant?

Brooks Rainwater: I think one of the significant features of it is that it created green space in a highly urban area by taking what was an elevated rail bed that was no longer in use, so it was kind of taking space that existed but wasn’t getting used to its best ability and turned it into something that was able to improve public health. In New York there’s not a great deal of park land or trees or ways for urban dwellers to interact with nature, and so I think by creating that space it really offers residents, as well as visitors, a good opportunity to have this new kind of place.

NPH: What is happening in other areas? What factors into the decision of where to create these green spaces? Clearly, people who are higher income and middle-to-higher income also need to exercise and prevent heart disease, but what are the questions that go into who to serve when some of these new projects are created?

Brooks Rainwater: I think that’s one of the things that we wanted to focus on within this report, is to make sure that equity was a large consideration. The way we did that was by also looking at a number of cities. Boston was a clear case study that they’ve designed healthier, high performance, green, affordable housing within the city, and that was a key aspect of their 2007 green building law they passed. And so what they’re trying to do there is focus specifically on lower income individuals and they’re looking at things like indoor air quality — which tends to be terrible — and lower-income, dilapidated housing. They’re also trying to help redevelop the communities surrounding...affordable housing, buildings that are being designed, and so I think we’re seeing some exciting things happen there. With Milwaukee we looked at how they’re revitalizing blighted brownfields for healthier buildings, neighborhood access and paths of recreation with thriving light industry.

So the community that they’ve revitalized there — the brownfield site — was in an area of the city that, as you can imagine, wasn’t one of the better areas, and now they’ve been able to kind of recreate that and you see people biking and walking through there. You have some thriving light industry on the edges of it as well, and it’s kind of providing that access to all members of the community.

The other area that we’ve tried to look in on was equity across age groups. We looked at Portland and what they’re trying to do to create communities for all ages, through policy decisions that promote mobility, accessibility and other options.

NPH: Given the emphasis on livability and green space, do you think community needs are changing architecture?

Brooks Rainwater: I think that the goal of architects has changed somewhat, but I think what’s really happened is we’re seeing a strong focus on development patterns where people are moving back to cities, people are wanting to live in inner-ring suburbs that are walkable, and even farther out suburbs where they’re building town centers in creating spaces for people to walk to things and to have transit options. So, I think it’s a mixture of architects who have always been focused on kind of serving society and designing what works best for the people who will inhabit the buildings and the communities that are designed. But, at the same time I think because you have such a strong groundswell of individuals who want to live in these types of communities that it’s kind of a push/pull situation that’s happening right now and it’s exciting to see. I think we’re moving back toward this idea that people want to really be closer to nature, while at the same time having the walkability and availability of stores and transit...

I really think architecture can make a difference when design professionals serve as these great collaborators. You know, we’re key stakeholders in planning public health and other disciplines, and I think we can all imagine a future where designing for health is just the way design is done, and we’re very focused on that right now. We really see health and design as our core commitments outside of just this report we’re about to release. For example, we’re currently working with the Clinton Global Initiative on design focused on public health. We’re working with architecture programs at universities to fund research and really figure out the best ways going forward to create healthier cities.

Also, we’ve convened a few programs between architects and public health officials to learn from one another and to really figure out the best ways that public health can be brought into architecture, and at the same time public health officials can start to see architecture as a key way to help fix this problem. Richard Jackson, [professor and chair of environmental health sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health], has been a member of our board of directors and has really focused on this issue. We’ve worked with him a number of times over the years. He is a very important proponent of the importance of public health and design.

Our slogan is “ good design makes a difference” and we really think that architects working together with public health officials and others can do a great deal to make America healthier in years to come.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.