How does it sound when Richard Jackson, MD, MPH, host of Designing Healthy Communities says that we are among the first generation in modern history to have shorter lifespans than our parents? It is a frightening thought, especially when it is compounded with the idea that the way in which we have designed – that is our buildings, our streets, our infrastructure, our food, our lifestyles – for decades has contributed to it. Designing Healthy Communities is a project that is dedicated to confronting contemporary issues of public health associated with the built environment and offering solutions that encourage reshaping our interactions, lifestyles and design strategies. In a series of episodes, Dr. Jackson discusses various factors within our environment that has caused rampant chronic health problems, the most prominent of which is Type 2 Diabetes caused by obesity. It comes down to an environment that promotes a sedentary lifestyle and poor food choices.
From “Retrofitting Suburbia” to “Searching for Shangri La”, the series delves into small scale solutions that are achievable within individual communities, targeting the way that people use their built environment, encouraging exercise in daily routines, and discussing how to make fresh and healthy foods affordable and available.
In “Retrofitting Suburbia” and “Rebuilding Places of the Heart”, Dr. Jackson discusses the lifestyle that America’s infrastructure and community planning has encouraged for the last 50 years. America was “designed for cars, not people” and has created a suburban sprawl that “prevents us from walking, it inhibits us from socializing, removes trees that make our air quality better”. These area some ideas touched upon by documentaries such as The End of Suburbia, which encourages us to rethink town planning in light of environmental issues and political tensions that arise from our reliance on cars and oil.
“Social Policy in Concrete” takes a look at the relationship between the affluence of a community and its susceptibility to an unhealthy environment. ”Where you live is a great predictor of how long you live,” says Dr. Jackson. This episode looks at impoverished communities, discusses the differences in life expectancy and what it means to have the right to live in a “health-promoting community.”
The final episode, “Searching for Shangri La”, gives viewers a look at communities that embody the strategies that Dr. Jackson encourages. These precedents serve to teach us about how healthy communities function, the choices and priorities that they make, how their infrastructure works and how they encourage healthy lifestyles that promote activity and healthy food choices.
Overarching policies and guidelines like New York City’s Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design and PlaNYC provide designers, architects and urban planners with a foundation for how to design a built environment that encourages a healthy lifestyle.