Built Environment 21st Century: Community For Healthy Lives

In recent years,  the way we continue to think of city living, and particularly suburban living is being found to be problematic in the 21st Century information age as we pass the peak oil era.  I’m continuing to read about our tendency to think of our environment as a separate thing from ourselves, which really is a big mistake. I believe that this false dichotomy is a part of our cultural inheritance that we can really do without, to say the least.

But having said that, we’re moving toward a new way of thinking about how we plan our communities, our neighborhoods. Because, as it turns out, poorly or short-sightedly planned neighborhoods seems to be bad for our health in more ways than one.

Here’s an interesting article about how our built environment is broken, so much so that our lives, and the lifespans of current generations are expected to be shorter than the ones that came before.

Built environment: we are where we live

The article relates to the PBS series Designing Healthy Communities, which is based on the work of Dr. Richard Jackson, Professor and Chair of Environment Health Sciences, UCLA. In his work, he states that our lifestyles and our health are directly impacted by what our built environment allows. So for instance, when all of our food and exercise regimens are based around fossil fuel consumption, and infrastructure to support it, we’re seeing physical problems in the health of people who live in those communities become more evident.

When it is difficult, or even unsafe to walk in a neighborhood because of a lack of access to pedestrian or bike routes, the knock-on effect is less active lives. And less active lives means physical consequences that manifest in a variety of health issues, which in turn costs us billions of dollars in health spending.

Again, we’ve been used to thinking about health and green building and planning as different areas. Yet, when our communities are built for cars, and not for people, ill-effects on health including poorer air quality, obesity, and even to mental health issues as a consequence of our  built environment can be seen as logical conclusions.

Quoted in the Our Built Environment is Broken article, Dr. Jackson states:

“One generation ago, 2/3 of kids walked or biked to school. Now, it’s 1 in 8.”

On the subject of governement-subsidized soy and corn products for processed food, with those same subsidies not extended to fruits and vegetables, he states:

 “In fact, if everyone at the surgeon general’s daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, the country would run out in three days. We just don’t have the produce available. This is why it’s so expensive.”

There are clearly political implications here around the food industry that deserve a dedicated discussion. But, for me the first step is getting the connections made between our built environments and our health, and to make them mainstream concerns loud enough for the development community, and building codes authorities to hear.

An ideal 21st Century built environment

So, what should a 21st century built environment look like? Well, here are a few ideas to consider for the transformation of our communities into healthier places to live.

  • more mixed zoning for residential and commercial spaces, less physical isolation of homes (and people)
  • condensed, self-contained neighborhoods for greater social cohesion, opposed to ‘sprawl’
  • community gardens for local food growing, and consumption
  • green walls, green roofs, rooftop gardens for cleaner air
  • Heavily funded  and deliberately integrated public green space to reduce symptoms of depresssion, and other mental illness
  • farmer’s markets to source seasonal food and encourage local economy
  • deliberately planned walkable spaces – trails, benches, shelters from inclement weather
  • diverse access for cars, biking, foot-traffic, etc for active living, including pedestrian-only routes
  • foot accessible street shopping spaces to encourage more local buying along commercial sectors close to home
  • Heavily funded public transit to reduce single-passenger car travel, increasing greater mobility, and improving air quality

All of the above areas have vital health implications; better eating, more active lifestyles, better air quality, reduced medical costs.

Ounce of prevention economy

To me, such planning injects a little “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It seems to me that we need a bit of both. But, why not invest in the former, so that the latter, in the future, isn’t quite as costly?

What if federal or state governments offered tax incentives to municipalities who reduce the cost of health care and hospitals because of extremely costly lifestyle-related illnesses? The money saved on health care could be injected into keeping a community like that going well into the next era of our civilization. Built into this of course is the movement away from dependence on driving, and in turn on fossil fuel consumption, which is another important aspect of transforming our health, our economy, and our lives as a whole.

Built environment needs transformation

We are no longer living in the post-war 20th century era. Times have changed drastically and in short-order. Our built environment must reflect that change.

Yet some things have not changed. The thing which has always preserved humankind through every era has been community. When we transform our built environment, we change the course of our lives. And one of the most important aspects of this is that of our health, and the overall quality and longevity of the lives of our loved ones.

To find out more about Dr. Richard Jackson’s ideas of designing health community, check out designinghealthycommunities.org.

Also, investigate the PBS series  Designing Healthy Communities.

Your ideas?

What are some of your ideas for a transformed built environment, dear reader?

Make them known in the comments section of this post!




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