Designing for Health: Expanding the Architect's Perspective

In 2011, American Institute of Architects (AIA) Westchester Hudson Valley (WHV) began developing programs for the Westchester Municipal Planning Federation's Land Use Training seminar series which spoke to the subject of active design theory and active design implementation strategies.

The initial programs spoke to emerging Active Design Center's initiatives and case studies. The programs introduced the architect's perspective towards active design planning principles to land use regulatory board members, municipal planning stall and elected officials. The 'Active Design Principles' advanced the idea that a building and site's design can improve a user's health through increased activity opportunities.

The AIA WHV series was warmly received and subsequently included bi-annually in the planning federation's regular training programs. As interest expanded and allied professional dialog increased, interaction between ALA WHV, ASLA, APA and WMPF increased, leading to the evolution of the original AIA WHV 2011 program subject matter. This evolution corresponded to a national trend which expanded the connection between design and health far beyond traditional design professional linkages and early LEED 'healthy materials' edicts and building occupant comfort recommendations.

The expanding envelope of thought recognized that design in the built environment should address a more comprehensive set of programmatic initiatives which can directly affect occupant's health and wellbeing, increase fundamental levels of fitness as well as contribute to overall improved health in communities.

The October 2016 Chapter meeting included a presentation entitled 'The Intersection of Design and Health in the Built Environment,' a title I literally borrowed from the APA's published initiatives. The presenter team included Valerie Monastra, AIA, current president of WMPF; Gina D'Agrosa, AICP, and Hudson Valley Representative for APA NY Metro; Phil Cerniglia, AIA, Director of Healthcare at Lathrop Associates LLP; and myself. The panel spoke to a diverse range of design initiatives promoting better health as a direct link to the built environment. The program highlighted current trends which expand our perspective towards how and what healthy design can and should represent.

Fast forward to 2017 and a new professional partnership initiative entitled Planners4Health was launched gathering architects, planners, healthcare professionals, environmental professionals and elected officials into a regional task force which will further advance the cause of integrating design and health as a fundamental element in comprehensive design programming, implementation and place making.

The Planners4Health Task Force is the result of a grant provided through APA. The task force region mirrors AIA Westchester Hudson Valley's chapter footprint but also captures New York City and Long Island. The task force broad goal is to promote healthy communities by identifying health challenges communities face and by extension, root causes which can be addressed via improved community fabric, i.e. the notion of recognizing the intersection of health and design.

Recognized health challenges are diverse and reflect issues resulting from national obesity trends relating to diet, lack of activity, diabetes resulting from obesity, diet and lack of activity: increased asthma concerns relating to airborne pollutants and poor indoor air quality issues and the indirect impacts of mental health concerns relating to multi-layered issues in community fabric.

Although these issues cross all cultural, economic and regional boundaries, the impacts on vulnerable populations who are less likely to have access to nutritious, affordable food in conjunction with limited or no opportunities for physical activities in poorly designed and constructed physical environments is particularly troublesome. Concerns relating to the physical environment extend from home life, to workplace, to community fabric.

In an effort to address these issues, the task force has created a website that contributes to infra professional dialog by providing a platform to collectively define/ share:

  • "What represents a healthy community in our region?"
  • Identify obstacles to creating healthy communities
  • Case Studies of healthy communities identifying achievable elements relevant to our region
  • Expand the collective vocabulary ... such as "how architects can address access to healthy food sources"
  • Expand awareness of growing resources ... AIA's Design & Health Research Consortium; Center for Active Design; ULI's Building Healthy Places Toolkit; Fitwell; Enterprise Green Communities; APA's Plan4Health expanded roster of supporting resource links.

The task force is also planning a Round Table event in mid-June and is circulating a survey to task force region stakeholders (provide input by taking the survey) as further research into region specific health issues. Goals for the June Round Table event include:

  • Encourage cross-sector discussions and partnerships across a variety of professions.
  • Create a "Toolkit" to share information, resources and initiatives towards increasing a community's ability to create healthier environments.
  • Gather information and feedback from Round Table participants which may further contribute to expanding goals, realizing opportunities and discovering creative solutions.
  • Craft a 'Next Steps' agenda which reflects stake holders concerns and desires to achieve healthier communities.

Related to the Planners4Health initiative, on the national level AIA and APA have joined forces with ASLA, ULI, ASCE, APHA and USGBC in a joint call to action to facilitate the creation of healthier environments and to make health a primary consideration in land use, design, and development practice. Collectively, the over 450,000 members of these organization are called upon to embrace collaboration across professions to promote healthier, more equitable communities. The call to action memorandum states:

"Addressing growing health challenges and inequities requires new partnerships and collaboration between built environment and public health practitioners, and a health-focused approach to landscapes, buildings, and infrastructure... When professionals in the fields of the built environment and public health work together, we multiply our potential to improve health."

AIA WHV has made significant strides towards advancing meaningful and productive collaborative professional alliances over the past eight years. These efforts span diverse regional issues from affordable housing to improved processes in our municipal review procedures. From transportation related infrastructure planning to building and energy code contributions and beyond, the Planners4Health alliance further highlights new areas of collaboration addressing broad scope societal issues such as promoting healthy communities.

In particular, this collaboration provides an expanded platform for contributions towards improved design and development initiatives which supports a better built environment.

Top image: A pop-up protected bike lane in Columbus, Ohio, is tested to demonstrate the impact of low-stress bikeways. Photo courtesy Columbus Public Health – Chronic Disease Prevention Advisory Board.

This article originally appeared in ArchPlus: A publication of the American Institute of Architects, Westchester and Hudson Valley Chapter, Volume 4, No. 2, Spring 2017. Reprinted here with permission.

About the Author
John D. Fry, AIA, LEED BD + C, is director of design and project architect at Sullivan Architecture in New York.

August 8, 2017

By John Fry