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Trevor Hancock: Designers can influence health, well-being

It is a truism in population-health work that the major determinants of our health lie beyond the health-care system.

It is a truism in population-health work that the major determinants of our health lie beyond the health-care system. Among the many professional groups whose work affects the health of people and communities, the design professions are among the most important.

“Design professions” include architects, interior designers, engineers, landscape architects and urban planners. Their work has a significant impact on health, for better or for worse.

I would argue that the most important evaluative measure of the outcome of their work is, or should be, whether it improves the health, well-being and quality of life of the people who live in the places they design.

One of our defining human characteristics is that we started to create shelters to protect us from the elements. Today, startlingly, we Canadians spend about 90 per cent of our time indoors. Of the remaining 10 per cent, half is spent in vehicles. This means we only spend on average an hour a day — about five per cent of our time — outdoors.

Not only do we live indoors, now we are urban dwellers. We began living in cities about 6,000 years ago and early in the 21st century, the world passed the point at which more than half of the population lives in urban areas. In Canada, we passed that point in the early 20th century, and now we are about 80 per cent urbanized. Globally, we will be two-thirds urbanized by 2050.

Moreover, because we are 80 per cent urbanized, we spend most of our one hour a day of outdoor time in an urban setting. So most of us spend perhaps one per cent of our time outdoors in non-urban natural areas. This is a problem because of the growing evidence that human well-being requires a connection with nature. This is especially true for children.

Clearly, the built environment is by far the most important physical environment for Canadians, and indeed for the global population. Moreover, how we design and operate our built environment has important implications for the natural environment, affecting land use, air and water quality and ecosystems, which also affect our health.

This makes the people who design our built environments important shapers of our health and well-being. Here are some ways they can improve our health through improving our built environments.

First, we need to improve the quality of housing, especially for low-income populations, including many First Nations. The health costs of damp, unsafe and crowded housing are high, both in human and economic terms. In a country as wealthy as Canada, it is scandalous that in 2006, 45 per cent of housing on First Nations reserves was in need of major repairs, compared to seven per cent for the non-aboriginal population. The design professions need to work with social groups and governments to design simple, affordable, healthy and environmentally sustainable housing, especially for low-income and aboriginal communities.

Second, we need to find ways to bring nature to people in the places where they lead their lives, especially in schools and neighbourhoods, but also in our workplaces. Street trees and green space help to reduce urban summer temperature, while neighbourhood parks, community gardens and school gardens can help create community connections, as well.

Third, we need to stop creating urban sprawl. The health impacts of urban sprawl include decreased physical activity and increased obesity; more energy use, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions; and more stress and loss of family time due to long commutes.

More dense, mixed-use walkable communities can help offset many of these problems and lead to improved health, while being more environmentally sustainable.

The creation of more sustainable communities is itself good for health, because well-designed communities have a smaller ecological footprint. When we reduce harm to the environment, we reduce harm to ourselves.

If we truly care about our well-being, we need to design the buildings and neighbourhoods where we live, learn, work and play so that they maximize the health of the people in those places.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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