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Public Health and the Built Environment

Talking Points

Public health experts, architects, and others in the livable communities field are examining the ways in which the built environment can affect health. Encouraging physical activity, reducing air pollution, and preserving the natural environment are important for public health.

Architects can design environments that incorporate physical activity into people's daily routines, give them a community with attractive destinations within walking or biking distance, and keep safety in mind with lighting, "eyes on the street" design, traffic calming, and other techniques to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety. An upfront investment in good design can save money -and lives - in the long run.

* Chronic illnesses associated with lack of physical activity include obesity, asthma, diabetes, arthritis, depression, heart disease, several types of cancer, and high blood pressure. Obesity is the nation's fastest growing health threat.

* Mixed-use communities generate about four times as many walking trips as auto-dependent suburbs. Streets designed for pedestrians rather than for cars, high-density patterns of development, and bike paths and walkways encourage people to walk or bike to run errands, go to school, or commute to work.

* Large surface parking lots not only encourage people to drive and intimidate pedestrians but they also create impermeable surfaces that send storm water runoff directly into waterways, causing flooding and increased concentrations of pollutants.

* Psychologists have found that just looking at natural environments, such as a park visible from an office window, restores people's mental, social, and creative functioning. Being in nature, as well as engaging in physical activity, helps reduce depression and boosts health.

* Architects can design communities that reduce the "heat island" effect by using green roofs, minimizing paved surfaces, and preserving trees. Green building technology conserves resources.

For more information on increasing physical activity through community design, go to Active Living by Design.

Quick Facts

* Between 60 and 70 percent of Americans do not get the recommended daily 30 minutes of exercise. Nearly one-third of Americans are obese, and almost another third are overweight. Regular physical activity can decrease the risk of almost every kind of cancer.

* An estimated 300,000 premature deaths in the U.S. in 1990 were due to chronic diseases caused or escalated by physical inactivity. Medical costs of inactivity are estimated to be $76 billion annually.

* Obesity in American adults has doubled since 1980, from 15 percent in 1980 to 31 percent in 2000. It is second only to smoking as a preventable cause of cancer. In 1991, 15 percent or more of the population was considered obese in only four states. A decade later, this was true of every state except Colorado.

* Only about half of children aged 12-21 engage in regular, vigorous physical activity, and children spend an average of at least one hour each day in cars. Only about one-third of children who live within a mile of their school walk or bike there, compared to 70 percent of their parents who walked or biked to school. Meanwhile, childhood obesity rates have more than doubled since the early 1970s.

* Unless current eating and exercise habits change, one-third of all children born in the U.S. in 2000 will become diabetic. Minority groups have a higher risk of developing the disease.

* Americans make fewer than 6 percent of their trips on foot, but pedestrians account for 12 percent of traffic fatalities, primarily because of street design that makes walking dangerous. Data suggest that one-third of car-accident fatalities are caused by poorly planned roads, not by driver error or mechanical failure. Children, seniors, and ethnic minorities are most at risk.

* Researchers estimate that smog from traffic congestion can cause more than 6 million asthma attacks, 159,000 emergency-room visits for asthma attacks, and 53,000 asthma-related hospitalizations in a single year. During the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, city officials reduced vehicle traffic by as much as 22.5 percent. Ozone concentrations dropped from peak levels by 27.9 percent, and asthma-related medical emergencies decreased by 41.6 percent.

* Depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and worldwide. Psychological studies have shown that exposing people to natural environments, even photographs of nature, improves their mood, helps them heal more quickly, increases their work and life satisfaction, reduces anger, and improves productivity.

* The Texas Transportation Institute's annual Mobility Report estimates that the average person's annual delay due to congestion was 26 hours in 2001, compared to seven hours in 1982. A person with a 25-minute commute to work could spend 60 hours per year sitting in traffic.


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