Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
AIA/MIT Collaboration to Focus on Link Between Design and Health in Urban Communities
With the help of the Clinton Global Initiative, the AIA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will spend the next decade decoding the relationships between design, urbanism, and public health.
By Brooks Rainwater
The AIA is partnering with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) on Decade of Design: Health and Urbanism. This collaboration is a part of the AIA’s Decade of Design Commitment to Action with the Clinton Global Initiative, which seeks to effect positive change through design in the global urban environment. To address the urgent need to research, design, and implement far-reaching solutions to urban challenges, this collaboration centers on design as a catalyst for improved public health in cities.
“The MIT Center for Advance Urbanism’s commitment brings immediate focus, structure, and energy to this effort,” says AIA Chief Executive Officer Robert Ivy, FAIA. “With the intellectual resources and recognition that the center brings, we know we can tap the tremendous talent of our profession to address these public health challenges.”
More than half of the world’s inhabitants live in urban areas, and this is projected to grow to 70 percent by 2050. The global urban environment is being planned, designed, constructed, and retrofitted at an unprecedented pace and scale. Pressing cultural and environmental concerns are demanding new levels of accountability as we measure ecological performance, energy use, mobility, density relationships, and the use of dwindling resources. We are in a new era of urban growth where the rules have changed, and the shifting paradigms of urbanism desperately need recalibration to meet today’s global challenges.
Key to this new research agenda will be the intersection of urbanism, design, and public health. Healthcare costs continue to rise. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that three-quarters of U.S. spending on healthcare goes towards treating chronic diseases, which are now the leading cause of death and disability in the United States, with 70 percent of deaths attributed to chronic disease. Obesity is at epidemic levels. Non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disorders, cancers, and depression are on the rise, and exact a significant toll on quality of life and the viability of communities in the United States and around the world. Whether combatting chronic diseases through the development of more pedestrian-friendly cities and neighborhoods that encourage active, healthy lifestyles, or preventing the development of non-communicable disorders like asthma by ensuring access to cleaner air and outdoor environments, the relationship between the design of place and the health of the people that live, work, and play there must be better understood. Given the current patterns increasing of urbanization, this is a critical need.
“There is a historical relation between the foundations of urban planning and the rise of public health concerns,” says Alexander d’Hooghe, director of the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism. “Today, about 150 years after both fields emerged together, it is exciting to see us probing a new form of convergence. This time we are investigating the scale of urban design, architecture, as well as planning, in relation to health today, whether related to obesity, or to climate change. I can't wait to [discard] the clichés that currently constipate our thinking, and ground the conversation on a more solid basis.”
The CAU is a critical partner with the AIA on Decade of Design, with a core focus on health and urbanism. With MIT’s reputation as a center of cutting-edge research and innovation, and the MIT School of Architecture and Planning’s pursuit of knowledge through research and design around real world problems, the AIA has found ideal partners for this endeavor. The CAU has been established within the School of Architecture and Planning, giving it the unique ability to draw students and faculty with diverse backgrounds and professional interests to work collaboratively on urban challenges.
The CAU’s expertise will center on articulating methods and projects that integrate separate disciplines in architecture, landscape, ecology, transportation engineering, politics, political philosophy, technology. and real estate. It will work at scales ranging from complex regional systems to local communities and neighborhoods. CAU’s pedagogy is summed up as “learning by doing.”
MIT and the AIA will jointly investigate and document correlations between the built environment and health, and develop evidence-based guidelines and design solutions. Over the next decade, Design: Health and Urbanism will develop these solutions, through research, prototypes, and demonstration projects. The goal is to transform cities through concerted, participatory action, supporting human, economic, and environmental health improvements, (most importantly) by using design as the key nexus point between them all.