Urban planning may benefit health

UCLA professor Richard Jackson’s argued in Nov. 15 lecture that urban planning can help solve the national chronic disease epidemic.
UCLA professor Richard Jackson’s argued in Nov. 15 lecture that urban planning can help solve the national chronic disease epidemic. Photo by Giovanni Bacarella.

The solution to chronic depression, obesity and asthma may not lie in medicine or therapy but in redesigning cities.

This idea is one of the driving principles behind the work of UCLA environmental health sciences professor and chair Richard Jackson, who delivered this year’s annual Eero Saarinen Lecture on Nov. 15 at the Yale School of Architecture. The Eero Saarinen Lecture is given by a professional outside of the field of architecture whose work is nonetheless relevant. Jackson, who is also the host of the PBS series “Designing Healthy Communities,” said he believes that the key to solving many of America’s health problems lies in rethinking urban planning and design.

“For a while, we built our cities very well in America,” Jackson said. The invention of the car changed everything, he said. “We build our cities around the needs of the car, not people.”

Jackson pointed to cities like New York, which has established parks, pedestrian areas and ample bike roads, as an example for other American cities to emulate. He added that the average New Yorker is 7 pounds lighter than the average American because the city is easily navigable by foot.

Trained as a pediatrician, Jackson is a proponent of the idea that healthy habits such as exercise and access to the outdoors should be endemic to city and building infrastructure.

“I look at the epidemic of chronic diseases, like obesity — it has its origins in many ways in how we have built our lives,” Jackson said. “Thinking that medical science will help us deal with the chronic disease epidemic that we are dealing with today is absurd.”

It was during his 1994–’03 tenure as director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that Jackson began to formulate his hypothesis that American cities are built in a way that undermines public health. He felt that although the public health community paid a lot of attention to environmental factors such as air, water and food, urban design was neglected.

Jackson said he was considered “a bit of a crackpot” at first, but that changed as he began to gather more data in his favor.

“Buildings’ effect on health hasn’t always been a concern — in 1970, no one was thinking about it,” Dean of the School of Architecture Robert Stern said.

Professor of social ecology at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Stephen Kellert, as well as Jodi Sherman, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Yale School of Medicine, said that the increasing amount of data linking environmental factors and human health has brought attention to the matter.

“The important contribution that ties Dr. Jackson’s work to my own is in bringing light to the critical importance of making climate change and pollution prevention top public health priorities,” said Sherman, who studies the adverse effects of the health care industry on the environment.

Keller also sees the environment as key to human well-being. His work focuses on “biophilia,” a term Kellert coined to designate the idea that humans’ relationship to nature is part of our evolutionary development and is thus instrumental to human health.

Like Sherman, Kellert sees overlap between his work and Jackson’s.

“Dr. Jackson also focuses on how our modern built environment has been detrimental,” Kellert said.

Jackson said there is a need for urban design projects like parks, bicycle routes and pedestrian access to everyday places like school, work or the grocery store. Kellert supports this idea because it would increase people’s access to nature.

For example, placing healing gardens or nature-themed art in hospitals or adding windows — which increase access to natural light — into office buildings and schools can greatly improve well-being. Approximately 40 percent of office workers spend their days in windowless buildings, a factor which contributes to more missed days and increased employee misbehavior, he said.

“I’m interested in how we design the urban environment,” Kellert said. “We can bring nature into it in a very positive and beneficial way that is simple.”

Jackson was recently named the recipient of one of five Heinz Awards, which grants him an unrestricted cash prize of $250,000.

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