Today, America is considered to be the fattest nation in the world, with 250 million Americans being overweight and 35.7% of adults obese. In fact, five out of six Americans don’t meet their weekly recommended exercise, and one in three American children and teens are overweight or obese. What’s more alarming is that the prevalence of obesity in children more than tripled from 1971 to 2011, and childhood obesity is now the No. 1 health concern among parents in the United States, topping drug abuse and smoking. At the same time, much of America’s modern environment and promotion of suburbanization moves cars rather than people around, and rewards sitting rather than walking.
When sleep apnea, hypertension, stress, anxiety, atherosclerosis, osteoporosis, high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, infertility and cardiovascular disease can be directly linked with obesity, and when 60-70% of illnesses can be controlled, managed or completely avoided with active lifestyle and healthy nutrition, we are still promoting sparse, dendritic and non-walkable street networks that “afford the luxury” of a quiet cul-de-sac with space for miniature mansions and lonely pools in every backyard. Walkable neighborhoods are transforming into non-walkable areas, and as the car lanes expand into 12-foot-wide lanes, so is America’s body mass index. This leads us to wonder, which is a bigger contributing factor to the growing rate of obesity: unhealthy eating habits or urban and suburban planning?
Yes, life expectancy at birth has grown considerably in the world in the last 50 years, from 46.6 years in 1950 to 67.6 years in 2010, and we thank technology and medicine for that, but at the same time we cannot forget that on average every person spends his/her last 12 years dealing with health issues, which might have something to do with the fact that the obesity rate in the 1950s was 9.7%. Research done by University of Connecticut professors Norman Garrick and Wesley Marshall shows that architects are a part of the solution in creating healthier, more resilient and equitable cities worldwide. Garrick and Marshall found that “older, denser, connected cities were killing three times fewer people than sparser, tree-like cities on an annual basis.” By eliminating the grid planning system, and promoting the suburbs and its unconnected, spread-out “tree-like” plans, we have also eliminated the possibility of something as simple as walking to the grocery store or a neighbor’s house, and instead promoted the increased use of cars.
As Brooks Rainwater wrote in an article, America needs to go on a “design diet” that re-designs major metropolitan areas, where the majority of Americans live, in order to get people moving. Architecture can significantly impact human well-being because people’s lives are affected by all aspects of their surrounding environment, including the built environment. Design makes a big impact on health because the way that individuals interact with their building, with the neighborhood, with how they walk from one building to the next can really increase the level of activity that people have. Creating a community that encourages a more active lifestyle rather than one run by automobiles is the better choice to promote health.
Design needs to be seen as long-term preventative medicine rather than just a roof over your head. We need to realize that housing and transportation choices, planning and zoning, open space and urban design all affect our physical environment and personal health outcomes, from obesity to mental illness to childhood development. To make architecture function as preventative medicine, we need to connect each of these pieces that make up a community in order to make walking the more convenient choice for people.
Unfortunately, in recent years, millions of dollars have already been spent to equip ambulances with larger gurneys, and hospitals with wider beds in order to accommodate the larger size of its patients. Does that mean that it’s only a matter of time when we also have to create a standard for larger doorways in our homes? Before it reaches that point, it’s important to realize that through partnerships, design-thinking, and action it is possible to design a better, healthier world.