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.