What is the Role of Architecture?

Public health is concerned with the prevention of disease and injury… to what extent do architecture and the built environment play a role in preventing injury? Architecture and infrastructure have a direct impact on the public. A building can invite the use of stairs over an elevator through proper placement, lighting, and proportion of stair tread to riser. These activities can increase physical activity and opportunity for social engagement, improving health and well-being. For centuries, architects have understood that design has far reaching effects, but this understanding was mostly qualitative and difficult to measure. Only recently have researchers and scientists become interested in developing correlation between place and health. Studies during the past few decades have begun to show the enormous influence the built environment has on populations. Spatial relationships have an impact on how people interact, whether they choose to walk or take the stairs, whether or not they feel safe and relaxed.

The notion of urban environments impacting health is by no means a new idea. With the rise of the industrial city, designers became advocates for worker health and safety, and many believed that a closer connection to nature was the answer. One of the most well known examples of health-based activism resulting in a physical intervention is Central Park in Manhattan. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux deemed tenement housing conditions as inadequate; data seemed to support their theory that the buildings were making people sick – high numbers of tuberculosis cases were reported in the cavernous structures. While much of the speculation about cause of disease was inaccurate (the science of bacterial infections was just emerging at that time), there were many other health benefits of park systems developed and implemented at the urging of health advocates.

Parks are only part of the story, though. As time passed, dense cities progressed toward the decentralized suburban model – neighborhoods were now filled with light, air and greenery. But with the suburbs came the automobile, and a more sedentary lifestyle. The effects, notably the rise of obesity rates, were startling to planners. As data emerged, a correlation between sprawl and obesity was noted by a multitude of researchers. Cities and planning groups began to work with public health professionals to combat the effects of ill health – an issue that was supposed to have been solved with the rise of the idyllic single-family home on a cul-de-sac.

The problem, then, is not simply the proximity to green space, but also the quality of the space, and the access to that space. To be successful, a space cannot simply exist. Instead, it must be well thought-out and examined from many angles. Spaces can be designed to invite play, to invoke a sense of hushed awe, to relax, to treat and filter storm-water runoff, to calm traffic, etc. That is, spaces can be treated to evoke an emotional response, or provide a utilitarian function. The best spaces will do both, and in doing both, promote the well-being of residents.

An over-simplification of difficulties can be a danger to architecture, but the embrace of too much complexity is a danger in its own right. The solution may be, instead, to consider public health at the local level.

Sources: http://www.jhsph.edu/about/what-is-public-health/

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The Urban Block, Resiliency and Public Health

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What was your outdoor experience as a child? Did you grow up in an urban environment? Did you play in the woods? Did your mom yell across the neighborhood when it was time for dinner?

I was lucky enough to have all of these experiences. My best friends, brothers and I played baseball in the dirt lot across the alley from our houses, using green walnuts from the tree in our yard as baseballs – no need to search for the ball after hitting a home run – there was an endless supply of walnuts to swing at. We also played in the woods; parks are common and plentiful in the low-density cities of the midwest. And it turns out that all of these outdoor experiences helped to shape my health and well-being.

For centuries, architects and engineers have been working to keep our cities healthy, but this effort has been primarily in response to sanitary conditions; beginning with the Roman aqueducts, the aim of designers has been to fight infectious disease. Now, the efforts of public health are directed at preventable disorders, both mental and physical. The cost of preventable illness (depression, hypertension, obesity, etc.) to the public is enormous, especially because these disorders disproportionately affect lower income citizens who are covered by medicare or not covered at all. If the public is paying for healthcare – either through taxes or the high cost of emergency room visits – why then are we not more concerned with minimizing the costs associated with avoidable illnesses? Continue reading

Lessons from Copenhagen

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What can we learn about sustainability from the Copenhagen model? Before answering that question, I need to clarify what I mean by “sustainability”. In our current culture, sustainability is often thought of in terms of environmental sustainability only, not other types of sustainable systems and processes. Mainstream media focuses on talking points like clean water and green energy, but sustainable cities are so much more than just environmental quality. In addition to environmental quality, sustainability should also be measured in terms of social, economic, and health quality.

These points are examined and illustrated in a book by Jan Gehl, Cities for People. Gehl points out that cities should be designed for the human scale if they are to remain sustainable – that is if cities are undesirable places to walk, to meet a friend for coffee, to work, to run errands, they will bedeserted. He is not alone in his opinion. Jane Jacobs made many of the same point in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. What sets Gehl’s book apart is his use of metrics; he takes a deeper look at the research and available data, and examines input and output on a correlational basis. The evidence is so strong in many cases that one would adopt the opinion that thriving urban environments are caused by actively designing for human scale.

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The Narrative

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For the B-More Resilient competition, the teams must provide a narrative to support the visual component of the entry. Our team has been developing the design of a resilient community based on focused infrastructure improvement to entice residents to return to the neighborhood, and more importantly, to stay. Our conceptual approach hinges on decentralized and interdependent systems, dispersed throughout the competition site. While these systems are able support an area larger than the allotted site, we have chosen to show them within the site perimeter  to better demonstrate the whole.

The independent pieces of the system are the size and shape of an existing row house. These six units or “resiliency nodes” consist of a microgrid energy storage unit, a stormwater runoff collection unit, a wastewater treatment unit, a micro police station, a tool library / food warehouse, and a resiliency hub (or community center). The nodes are designed for insertion into the most damaged houses, leaving the more stable structures to be rehabbed and remain as single family residences.

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Resilient Design

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With a month remaining in the competition, we are busily gathering the larger conceptual ideas of the project and transforming them into design details. The overarching theme of “Resilient Communities”can seem like a vague concept. What does resiliency actually look like in the built environment?

Our approach is one that focuses mostly on the infrastructure of the place. The old Field of Dreams adage doesn’t work in the real world. If you build it, they will not necessarily come – which is why most public housing is a disaster. If you build it better and more cohesively, perhaps you can entice them to come, and more importantly, to stay.

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