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Building A Healthier City

By Dr. Kohar Jones

Think of a neighborhood, any neighborhood.  Can you imagine the changes you could make to create a more beautiful, economically vibrant and healthier community? 

The Chicago Architecture Foundation has a fascinating exhibit called Design on the Edge, featuring seven projects that do just that. Teams of architects reimagine city neighborhoods centered around different “L” stops in Chicago, harnessing design to revitalize communities.  Indirectly, they provide a pathway to a transdisciplinary, transsectoral approach to health.

Many of the major health issues facing Chicago – as well as the United States and the world – are linked to the built environment.  Asthma is worsened by proximity to idling cars caught in traffic, or factory emissions. Obesity is worsened when there are no bike or walking trails, no parks to play in, limited access to public transportation networks.  Food deserts arise in poor neighborhoods, where grocery stores do not flourish, and farmers markets remain a dream.  These deficits in the built environment contribute to the burgeoning epidemic of obesity that will be a $200 billion dollar burden on the American medical system in the future. Obesity contributes to hypertension, diabetes, depression--all diseases of lifestyle that can be addressed by creating healthier places to live, work, and play.

Our built environments, both physical and social, change our opportunities for health.  It is individuals who become sick.  However, it is our behaviors that shape our susceptibility to disease.  Our individual behaviors – eating,  exercise, partnering with physicians – are shaped by our families, communities and neighborhoods, the habits they teach us and the opportunities they afford us.  Are there grocery stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables? Safe places to exercise? Jobs in the neighborhood? Community spaces to come together?  Accessible transportation to connect with the cultural and economic opportunities of the larger city?   The physical environment in which we live shapes our individual behaviors that determine our health.

By reimagining the places where we live, work and play, the architects in Design on the Edge create the physical and social space to promote the active living that may create a healthier Chicago.

In the project SuperElevated, John Ronan imagines transforming Chicago’s crumbling “L” system into magnetic powered monorails topped by a biking/running path to facilitate self-propelled transportation towards the city—natural exercise in pursuit of an easier commute.

Doug Garafola and Xavier Vendrell reclaim public roads in residential Roscoe Village, diverting neighborhood traffic to the alleyways behind the homes.  They convert wide streets to neighborhood commons, green space where sheep might graze and baseball would be played. Ross Wimer’s Midway Loop creates a bike and walking path in a perimeter around the airport, in a covered structure that allows pedestrians to watch planes in motion while doubling as a sound barrier.

The transportation projects promote exercise, integrating bike and walking paths with public transportation and bike/car shares.  They use porous pavements that allow for water to drain to water the plants around. They use special materials on the stairs to a transit station to gather the kinetic energy of thousands of commuters each day to convert it to the electricity that lights the station at night.  They use cutting edge technologies--magnetic levitation and pneumatic barriers--mixed with their imagination to create a healthier physical environment.

Other architects imagine building healthier social spaces. Jeanne Gang imagines renaming the Red Line the Peace Train, uniting the inhabitants of the 40 neighborhoods along the line in a Youth Center for Civic Engagement. Patricia Saldana Natke’s Pilsen Textile Incubator would promote the creation of new types of textiles, providing a beautiful space for exhibitions and retail, to unite appreciators of fine fabrics across the economic spectrum. Sarah Dunn and Martin Felsen bandage the “urban wound” of the huge parking lot around the United Center (where the Blackhawks and Bulls play) with a “growth boundary,” three story flats that interlock like haphazard legos to delineate event space. Darryl Crosby’s Crossing Lines imagines stations in centers shaped like the five arms of the starfish reaching into the community to create neighborhood hubs.

Design on the Edge imagines projects that create integrated transportation networks de-emphasizing car-based transportation and incorporating bike and walking trails with a network of city trains linking different neighborhoods.  They promote revitalized neighborhood economic centers. They provide communities with gathering places, social centers.  All together, the environments they would build promote physical, mental and social well-being. 

These visionary architects are showing the way to a healthier America, demonstrating the importance of transdisciplinary, transsectoral approaches to health.

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