Interview with Paul Morris on Designing Healthy Communities

Paul Morris, FASLA, former president of ASLA, discusses recent efforts by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to fight widespread public health problems through healthy community design. Morris was invited by the CDC to participate in a select group advising on the development of a new center around healthy community design. He argues that the lack of access to sustainable transportation infrastructure like sidewalks, bike lanes, and low-cost public transportation creates additional disadvantages for communities with poor educational systems and problems with nutrition. Furthermore, Morris thinks that there is enormous “pent-up demand” for sustainable transportation options in communities, and it’s a case of “if you build it, they will use it.” Lastly, he thinks landscape architects and other design professionals can design healthy communities through “active” and “passive” design interventions.  

According to the CDC, “Most health disparities affect groups marginalized because of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, disability, geographic location, or some combination of these.” Disadvantaged communities are often disadvantaged in terms of access to transportation options. Unhealthy communities lack sustainable transportation infrastructure, such as sidewalks, bike lanes, or low cost public transportation. These communities also often lack green infrastructure — parks, green roofs, trees. When asked what kind of infrastructure investment is needed to remove these inequities, Morris responded: “Land use and transportation decisions often are the biggest issues. Not only is ease of access important, but also the availability of services and things like nutritious foods as well as access to education. The lack of mobility in terms of accessibility to non-auto transportation adds to that.”

Morris says the CDC is focused on creating connections between public health, land use, and transportation. “For them, the big issue is a lot of regions or communities do not understand the kind of direct corollary between health and the interface between land use and transportation decisions. They’re not only looking for ways to improve on the availability of better transportation and a more mixed use land use environment, but they’re looking for ways to influence organizational development at the local government level. They’re looking for ways to contribute to the financial or fiscal mechanisms that are necessary to provide these services and facilities. They’re also looking to influence the political process, in that they’re trying to create factual reference points that can contribute to the conversation — whether it’s through health impact analysis (which is a tool they’ve used through their community health organizations) or things like the LEED green building certification process, the Sustainable Sites Initiative, or the ICLEI STAR Community Index process.”

There has been discussion on what needs to come first: healthy community infrastructure (sidewalks, bike lanes, promenades), or demand from local communities for this infrastructure. If communities don’t have infrastructure that enables healthy behavior, what is the best way to create demand? Morris says: “There’s a lot of debate around that. In examples around the country, what has been found is that where communities take the initiative to actually install the infrastructure, there is, in fact, a significant pent-up demand that has been unmet. It’s kind of a ‘if you build it, they will use it’ situation. In different cities around the country, where they’ve done things like added bike lanes on streets, or built sidewalks where they didn’t exist, they were surprised at the increase in usership by walkers and bicyclists for those kinds of facilities.” The key to getting these types of projects built, however, is local leadership. “It really requires some leadership on the part of local governments to devote some percentage of their infrastructure resources to making these things available and attract people to use them. You know, it isn’t enough to just say, ‘Well, people say they want them, so we’re going to build them.’ You actually have to have them there for people to know that they’re available for use.”

For Morris, landscape architects play a key role in designing healthy communities, and can contribute through a combination of “active” and “passive” design interventions. “Active elements have to do with the introduction of widespread indoor and outdoor recreational facilities. The second area in which they can help is through the development of recreational programs — the design of systems — that are adaptable to the recreational needs of a community. The passive part is really just better and more frequent design of facilities that makes it possible for people to access transportation, those recreation activities. Whether it’s backways, sidewalks, or other trails, you’ve got to have ways in which people can get access to the parks, recreational facilities and programs that are being designed.”

Read the full interview

Image credit: Urban Corridor Planning — City of Houston, Houston, TX. The Planning Partnership Limited, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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