Linking the Built Environment to Better Health

In today’s cities, Urban planners and architects are linking the traditional notions of planning, including land use, transport, community facilities, housing, parks and open space, with health concerns such as physical activity, public safety, healthy eating, the natural environment and the mental health of citizens.  Technology has provided some incredible benefits to us in the last century, but have we forgotten how to use our bodies or is the path of least resistance just too attractive?

While in Spain IQuadrat-Or.Barcelona was able to visit and study the work of urban planner, Ildefons Cerdà and his efforts on the Eixample district in Barcelona.  It was constructed in the early 20th century with the main focus being to improve the living conditions of the citizens in Barcelona.  To do this he made some very aggressive and strict regulations that completely altered the way Barcelona is laid out, so much so, that the locals call it “new Barcelona” A close examination of the code for Eixample reveals large sections of city mandates that are basically the inverse of the requirements we have here in Phoenix.  Some of Ildefons Cerdà main objectives were for incorporating extensive sunlight, natural ventilation and more open green public areas.  These are areas where we don’t seem to have a problem.  The project divided the district into blocks of a standard size using strict building regulations that only allowed them to be built up on two sides, and only to a limited height. That left open spaces or gardens in between to guarantee houses had healthy amounts of natural light and ventilation.  Large emphasis was placed on shops and community services, and each block was originally to have at least 800 square meters of open space. Currently, buildings are much higher than anticipated and much of the inner green space has been developed into car parks and workshops.  The government in Barcelona is again reexamining the ideals of Ildefons Cerdà as it attempts to make the city healthier.

So what can we learn from Cerdà’s plan and how can we design the city so that it encourages the health and well-being its citizens?  The street grid of Eixample looks remarkably similar to that of Phoenix’s.  The building area however, is the exact opposite from the way we construct here.  The buildings are brought right up to the edge with the only setback being diagonal for visibility.  This encourages walkability and diffuses the desire to drive.  The main streets or “complete streets” lead to the major landmarks and areas of interest: they are also some of the only occasions where the grid is interrupted.  This is how complete streets are utilized to their full potential, and how we can begin to place higher value on those streets that can make the largest urban impact.  Making every street walkable and or bike friendly is impractical and excessive for Phoenix.  Having the bike routes and transits areas centralized and connected makes the most sense for our city.  There are several notes we can take from the dense cities of the world.  The key will be the unique solutions that we find for incorporating the benefits of density into our town.  They will reduce the level of CO2 in the air, they will encourage a non-sedentary lifestyle and they will grow to become the design and identity of Phoenix.

The design of cities is having a huge impact on human health. Earlier this year, the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure reported that only about half of NSW’s population gets the recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise and that 25 per cent of schoolchildren and 52.5 percent of adults are overweight, while 19 per cent are obese.  One argument I’ve heard is that people are responsible for the choices they make, that they choose to eat unhealthy and not to exercise.  While I agree with this to some extent, I believe that our city is making those choices to exercise more difficult than they should be.  Yesterday I attended the GoGreen Conference at the Phoenix convention center.  It was a wonderful learning experience with several panel discussions on sustainability, public health, urban resources and green business development.  The topic was raised of geographic dependent lifestyle choices.  Members of the panel highlighted the lack of complete streets on our urban areas.  A complete street is one that accommodates all forms of transportation.  There is a huge deficit of walkable and or bikeable streets that make the choice of walking as part of your daily routine dangerous if not impossible. 

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One member of the panel was Dr. Henry Tazelaar who’s main interest’s center on Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Pathology.  He notes the effect of burning fossil fuels as having a dramatic effect on lung cancer patients.  As CO2 particulates reach an alarming rate, we all need to think about the way we use and pollute the places we live.  Phoenix has been the poster child for urban sprawl for several years now, and as our economy picks up and construction begins to become more prevalent, we have an opportunity to focus our efforts on densification of our city.  Early reports on air quality show that a person living in the suburbs burns 30% more fossil fuels annually that someone in a dense urban environment.  That 30% is per person, not household.  Spreading our resources and infrastructure to the entire phoenix metro area which is now roughly 100 miles in diameter is an unsustainable practice and one that is affecting our future generations.   There are several ways to combat these adverse effects of urban sprawl and to refocus our efforts on a truly functional downtown urban core. 

Strategies proposed to combat health problems and create healthier cities include building housing close to places of employment, services and amenities so people can walk every day; improving urban design in city centers and neighborhoods; and building integrated transport networks that include active transport within and between centers. Accessibility is also critical to a healthy community, particularly for the elderly, the young or the disabled.  Concerns about rising levels of obesity and cardiovascular disease have led to a considerable amount of attention being paid to how the built environment can be designed to create more opportunities for physical activity. Building environments that encourage walking and cycling can have direct health benefits and creating new passive and active open spaces close to work and home, including walking and cycling facilities; and improving roads and infrastructure features such as street lighting and end of trip facilities help to build more livable cities.

Densification and incorporation of all these strategies may at first seem daunting but I refer you the (Mall Mentally) post that discusses the proper way to identify the areas of need.  Phoenix is in a unique situation of reversing too much emphasis on the automobile and reassessing its scale.  Most of what needs to take place here has never been done without the use of a dictator or after the year 1920.  It will take specific selection of the most impact able areas and then deliberate connection of those areas to begin to move the pendulum in the other direction.  I’m up for it, are you?????

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