Are walkable neighborhoods like the historic squares in Savannah, GA really good for our health? How do we measure it?
It’s always a pleasant surprise when you go to a lecture only because someone invited you, and you have the expectation of being bored, to instead discover a humorous, brilliant speaker who makes you think in ways you haven’t thought before. That’s what happened last Thursday night when I dragged myself to the National Building Museum to hear Dr. Howard Frumkin from the Centers of Disease Control speak about the impact of green building on health - How Do We Know What Makes Places Healthy? Here is a man with more degrees than my whole department (and we’re a well educated group) who was as entertaining as he was thought-provoking. His basic premise was: Are walkable, traditional neighborhoods really as healthy as they seem or do they just draw people who would be predisposed to walking anyhow?
Our Drive-Thru Lives
"The Drive-Thru Tree" in northern California Redwood country. Are we so lazy we even have to drive through our trees?!
The amazing inventions which culminated in the twentieth century engineered physical activities out of our routines and our lives. As a result we expect everything instantly and immediately. Why walk around the corner to pick up your dry cleaning if you can pull up to the front window in your car and get it instead? Indeed, why even walk around a redwood tree if you can drive through it?! (His jest not mine!) Suburban and even urban developments post-WWII were designed to move traffic, not pedestrians. We need to go back to our traditional neighborhoods and urban cores to remember the pedestrian.
Even with this though, the statistics to prove that walkable neighborhoods are better for our health are more anecdotal than actual. Architects and planners are not used to evaluating our designs and constructions empirically. Scientists at agencies like the CDC and at universities need to be working hand-in-hand with practitioners if we want to truly understand if and how good “walkable neighborhoods” are for the planet and our health.
Community Design’s Effects on Health and Well-Being
One of our basic human needs seems to be met by walking and talking in places like historic Savannah.
But then, at the same time, sometimes common sense is all you need to realize how healthy a walkable neighborhood is or should be. How do we balance common sense with empirical research and which is more real? Are you shaking your head right now? If you are it’s because this is the problem with almost everything related to climate change today. We all want to do what’s best, but the science is so young and evolving so quickly that what we believe for sure now, we may think silly in a year. Arrrrggghhhh. So what do we do? Well, we err on the side of what seems to make sense and move on. Dr. Frumkin mentioned eight criteria which, to him, indicate when a community is good design, healthy, and green. These were:
1. Provides many opportunities for physical activity.
2. Prevents air pollution.
3. Minimizes traffic injuries.
4. Doesn’t make climate change worse.
5. Provides many, healthy food choices within walking distance.
6. Mitigates heat island effect.
7. Improves mental health.
8. And provides positive social interaction – gives residents abilities to meet, greet, mix and mingle.
Walking and Talking
As Dr. Frumkin asked, “When was the last time you heard about a case of ‘sidewalk rage’?" A recent blog I wrote on my True Green column about the beauty of walking and “saying hello” in a historic community like Old Salem, North Carolina got more attention than almost any other blog I have written in the past two years. It would seem that people are hungry for walking and talking, and you don’t need empirical research to prove that.
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Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C was formerly the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office. She is currently a sustainability consultant to the National Trust and can be reached at email@example.com.