Our own Julie Hendricks recently spoke at the Scenic America conference about the correlation between urban design and health. Below is an overview of what she discussed.

Earliest city planners, a profession that came into existence at the beginning of the 20th century, were architects and landscape architects. They meant well, but made some decisions regarding city infrastructures that have negatively impacted the health of many Americans over the last century.

Initially, planners were concerned that cities were too congested and dirty and were a haven for criminals, vice and temptations. They concluded that the best solution was to decrease density, encourage Americans to live in single-family houses, and separate commerce and residences. The early planners were right to believe that cities were dangerous. While these illnesses are no longer big sources of mortality, early city planning has contributed to other issues related to the obesity epidemic.

In fact, if the city planners at the turn of the 20th century said they were going to design future cities so that all Americans within 100 years would be overweight, diabetic, and depressed, they could hardly have done a better job. The obesity epidemic is party a result of occupants living in the suburbs and commuting to work, spending extended periods of time in a car.

Over the course of the century, cars have become the predominant mode of transportation. In 1969 about 50% of children walked to school; now only about 13% do. Between 1950 and the year 2000, the amount of vehicle miles driven per person has nearly quadrupled. Research indicates that driving can elevate blood pressure, blood sugar, adrenaline, and cortisol, increasing the risk of heart disease.

Americans have become more sedentary in other ways as well. There’s been a large increase in service jobs over the last century, and a corresponding decrease in agricultural goods-producing jobs. In the 1960s more than half of all jobs required physical activity; today, less than 20% do. Most people in service jobs spend significant periods of time sitting, which has been shown to be quite unhealthy even for people who are otherwise physically active. Americans spend more time than ever in front of a computer, phone, and television screens and less time completing household tasks.

Envision the difference in physical exertion between chopping wood for the stove, and turning the dial on a thermostat, both methods of warming up a house. One interesting note is that the amount of time Americans spend doing active outdoor activities, likes sports, has increased slightly over the same recent decades that obesity has increased. So, we can conclude that our reduction in physical activity comes from exerting ourselves less getting from place to place, working, and completing housework.

In order to counter this, we must introduce more incidental sources of physical activity into our lives and work. We can create new opportunities for exercise in both the workplace and in transit. Transportation should be safe, convenient, and even inviting for people to walk or bike from place to place if they so choose. In addition, streets should be designed to accommodate public transit, allowing more people to live without cars. Streets that are designed to accommodate all modes of travel are called “Complete Streets.”

Houston recently passed a Complete Streets ordinance that will require new street developments to consider accommodations for pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit, in addition to cars. As architects, we have a responsibility to design buildings that make walking and climbing stairs not just possible, but desirable and wonderful. Stairs should be wide, beautiful, day lit, and prominently placed so people at the bottom long to see what’s at the top. The same should be done for walkways and corridors, so they become places that people want to traverse.

We have the unique opportunity to positively impact the health of our nation through developing a built environment that encourages activity and exercise.

References http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm4829a1.htm http://guide.saferoutesinfo.org/introduction/the_decline_of_walking_and_bicycling.cfm http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/archive/downloads/sr282papers/sr282brownson.pdf http://www.multihousingnews.com/features/greenbuild-special-report-creating-a-healthier-built-environment/1004093959.html http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0019657 http://articles.latimes.com/2013/may/25/health/la-he-dont-sit-20130525