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Placemaking’s power to build healthier, happier communities outlined in new report

The Case for Healthy Places connects community building with wellbeing

Bike & Walk Montclair New Jersey
Bike & Walk Montclair’s Open Streets Festival and Tour de Montclair, 2016    
Bill Solomon

Good health starts at home. But researchers are discovering that it also starts with well-designed neighborhoods, smart urban design, and healthy streets. A new report by the Project for Public Spaces, The Case for Healthy Places: Improving Health through Placemaking, synthesizes decades worth of research on the relationship between health outcomes and location to create a guidebook on what could be called preventative design. Creating places that encourage healthy behavior can serve as a valuable, cost-saving form of preventative care, and this report sheds light on the connection between clinical research and community building activities.

“To address the real health challenges of the 21st century,” explains Project for Public Spaces president and founder Fred Kent in a statement about the report, “we need innovative solutions that look not only at the physical causes and symptoms of poor health, but also the social, economic, and environmental components of total well-being.”

 Union Square Greenmarket in New York City
Union Square Greenmarket in New York City
Project for Public Spaces

Created with the support of Kaiser Permanente, a health care consortium, and philanthropists Anne T. and Robert Bass, this new report contains recommendations and research meant to help health institutions, planners, and community organizations create and support healthy placemaking. Broken down into five sections—social support & interaction; play & active recreation; green & natural environments; healthy food; and walking & biking—the Case for Healthy Places offers guidelines and plans for creating beneficial neighborhood infrastructure and programming such as farmers markets, community gardens, and public plazas. Community case studies such as the 78th Street Play Street, a DIY playspace created by a local group in Queens, New York, or Peaches & Greens, a combination produce store, commercial kitchen, and community space in Detroit, showcase how these ideas can be put into practice.

According to numerous metrics, the United States faces serious health issues, including obesity (more than one-third of U.S. adults are considered obese) and poor mental health (the CDC estimates that only about 17 percent of U.S. adults are considered to be in a state of optimal mental health). The placemaking strategies outlined in the report seek to positively impact what the World Health Organization calls the “social determinants of health,” the places Americans live, work, and play. More accessible, welcoming, walkable, and engaged neighborhoods can help improve residents’ mental health, physical wellbeing, and social capital.

Advocates often point out that one’s zip code can be a significant determinant of their health. according to research by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute (2016), only 10 to 20 percent of a person’s health is related to access to care and the quality of services received; 30 percent are health-related behaviors directly shaped by socio-economic factors, and an additional 10 percent are related to the physical environment. By increasing access to healthy modes of transportation, better exercise and recreation options, as well as healthier food options, urban design can help improve community health and make a significant dent in health care costs. That’s why many health care centers and hospitals are getting involved in urban planning and community outreach.