The Three Legs of a Healthy Built Environment: Smart Growth, Active Transportation, Human-Scale Architecture

Our goal is livable communities – healthy, safe, sustainable, friendly, affordable, diverse, beautiful.  The vision is not just about a facilitating built environment but what it accomplishes – encouraging people to supportively relate to each other and feel positively about themselves.

Public health teaches us that it is expensive, slow, and very difficult to try to convince each person, one at a time, to change their behavior.  It is much more cost effective, with a much broader impact, to change the context for decision-making so that making a “healthy choice” is the easy, low cost, and default thing to do.

So attaining the goal requires shaping our built environment and transportation system at three levels:  regional, community, and structural.  We need to use Smart Growth and Transportation Oriented Development strategies to control the location of new development to minimize impact on the natural landscape, maximize access to public transportation to key destinations, and strengthen social connections.  We need to concentrate building in higher-density corridors and clusters rather than isolating scattered spots.  We need to refocus our transportation system so our Complete Streets prioritize walking, bicycling, and transit to maximize personal health, interpersonal interactions, and local business activity — while minimizing pollution.    We need to reform our zoning laws to promote appropriate mixed uses.  We need to design our buildings (and their surroundings) to conserve energy, take up less space, balance privacy with interaction, and delight our senses.

Our tools include zoning and building codes, context-sensitive road design, health regulations, LEED-ND guidelines, and financial incentives.  But even more fundamental is a set of values centered on positive interpersonal relationships in a human-scale environment.

Why do we have a chance to succeed despite the increasingly reactionary political scene?  Because nearly two-thirds of our population is overweight and their health care costs could bankrupt both their families and the public treasury. Because natural resources, including oil, are limited and will become more expensive.  Because the climate is changing, at least partly because of human activity.  Because our population is both growing and aging and neither the elderly nor the young adult segments want to live in isolated suburbs.

And on the positive side, the realization of our vision could make it easier and less expensive for people of all ages and physical abilities to get engaged in work, school, shopping, play, culture, and socializing – while reducing social costs, increasing property values, and promoting local business.  If it didn’t require government leadership, taxpayer investment, and a commitment to greater equality it might almost sound Republican.

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