The way we design and build our communities can affect our physical and mental health.
In the last fifty or sixty years, a new design for communities has become typical in many parts of our country. It's a pattern called "urban sprawl" and is based on the ready supply of automobiles. Some features of urban sprawl include:
- Low density land use where people live on large tracts of land
- Low land use mix so that homes are spread apart from workplaces, recreation or schools, making the distances that people have to travel longer than ever before
- Homes are far away from where people work, worship, learn, and play
- More dependence on the automobile
- Fewer sidewalks and bike paths
These features of urban sprawl present us with some advantages but also many challenges to our health and well-being. They include:
- More driving and less physical activity
- More air pollutants from automobiles
- More injuries from car crashes and pedestrian accidents
- Less sense of community
- Less contact with nature
- More greenhouse gases contributing to climate change
All of these features of community design can affect our health in many ways. They can even increase the risk of some of the most common and stubborn disease that we face: heart disease, respiratory disease, cancer and others. That calls on us to design the healthiest and most wholesome communities we can as a way of protecting public health. A set of principles known as "smart growth," "traditional neighborhood design," or "new urbanism" promotes not only livability, but also healthy places to live. These principles include:
- Mixed land use and more land density to shorten distances between homes, workplaces, schools and recreation
- Transportation alternatives including bicycle trails, sidewalks and mass transit
- Affordable housing so that people of all income levels can afford to live in healthy communities
- Town centers close to where people live so they can walk or bike to shopping, everyday errands, places of worship and social activities
- Greenspace, trails and parks to provide more opportunities for contact with nature.
If we understand that community design directly affects our health, then we need to take steps to make our communities as healthy as possible. The very same changes that make communities more livable are also environmentally sound and healthy and make good economic sense. We are seeing change around the country. In more and more cities, people who want to live healthy lifestyles or who are simply fed up with commutes are choosing instead to live in compact walkable communities.
Designing and building healthy communities can improve the quality of life for all people who live, work, worship, learn, and play within their borders—where every person is free to make choices amid a variety of healthy, available, accessible and affordable options.