A New Focus on Healthy Communities


During a session at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston, the three presidents of the major design organizations — American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Institute of Architects (AIA), and American Planning Association (APA) — made a united call for greater collaboration on designing healthy communities. Working from the understanding that design can encourage active lifestyles and contribute to community health and quality of life, they also spoke of a need for design professionals to become leaders in the push for healthier, and therefore more sustainable communities.

Mickey Jacob, president of the AIA, called our time the “collaboration age,” stating it’s critical that all landscape architects, architects, and planners to adapt to change by working together with an eye on advocacy.

Jacob reminded all design professionals that every time they speak about design, whether with a client or at the neighborhood little league game, they are engaging in advocacy and it should be done passionately. He called for design professionals to advocate at all levels for healthy design.

Tom Tavella, FASLA, president of ASLA, argued that “well-designed places have a direct connection to public health.” A poorly designed or auto-centric community is often unhealthy, with high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

On obesity alone, the numbers are staggering – some 300,000, or 14 percent, of deaths are attributed to this condition. This adds up to $147 billion in health care costs. What does this have to do with landscape architecture? Tavella said it has “everything to do with landscape architecture.” And if design professionals work together across disciplines and design with an eye on walkability and promoting activity, they have a chance to reverse this trend.

Reiterating the message that design professionals must be leaders in the drive for healthy and sustainable design, Tavella spoke of a paradigm shift wherein the guiding principle of green infrastructure, sustainability, and walkability are starting to be the norm. But it isn’t enough for design professionals to talk about the need for green streets and walkable communities, they “need to engage the research and integrate it into [their] designs.”

Bill Anderson, president of APA, reminded the attendees that the “allied professions” of planning and landscape architecture came out of a need for greater public health, so it’s reasonable progression that once again design professionals are called upon to transform American cities in order to make them healthier. Communities can be strengthened and people can be healthier “just from simple living.”

Returning to the over-arching theme of collaboration, Anderson stated that designers need to engage public health and medical professionals to ensure all aspects of healthy communities are covered. Part of this is learning to speak across disciplines and find a common language to promote the common goal of healthy communities.

We live in a time when the majority of people live in cities, our populations are living longer, and the challenges of climate change and frequency of intense storms are increasing. Design professionals are in a unique position be drive positive change toward healthy, sustainable communities. As Tavella said, “we all have to work together to make healthy communities happen.”

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, ASLA 2013 intern and Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

Image credits: ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Award. High Line, Section 2. James Corner Field Operations / Iwan Baan, (2) ASLA 2011 Professional General Award of Excellence. Portland Mall Revitalization. ZGF Architects / ZGF Architects

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