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Designing Infrastructure for Healthy Communities

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

The built environment guides our travel behavior, and our travel behavior impacts our health. There is an undeniable link between infrastructure and our wellbeing. This is an important issue that local government agencies need to embed in planning and design projects, even though health and infrastructure industry professionals rarely interact with each other.

We’ve probably all been to a beach boardwalk that’s wide enough for pedestrians, skateboarders, and the occasional bicyclist. But there’s no car traffic on it, because the “beach infrastructure” was designed for a certain type of mobility. If your family vacations at a hotel that’s on the boardwalk, most of your trips can be made on the boardwalk. But if you happen to be in a hotel a few miles away off an interstate, you’ll be driving yourself to the beach, shops, restaurants, and other sites.

It sounds obvious, but we have to remember our environment guides our travel behavior. So thinking with that end in mind, if we want to see healthy travel behaviors, we need to plan and engineer the environment accordingly.

The public health crisis is a transportation crisis.

Mental health connections aren’t as obvious to most of us. But according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, regular physical activity like walking or bicycling improves the ability to think, reduces anxiety and depression, and improves overall quality of life. Government agencies stress this so much that we’ve developed material to promote physical activity.

Our transportation networks need to include safe, comfortable and connected places to walk and bicycle, the two fundamental modes of transportation. The reality for so many Americans is that the only reliable way to get around is to jump in a car and drive.

The talking points published by health agencies look like something that every public works or planning department should have posted in their offices. Take inspiration from programs like Move Your Way.

The public health crisis is a land use crisis.

If you don’t have anywhere to walk, then sidewalks don’t matter. Americans end up driving to a gym to get on a treadmill. We’re long overdue for serious reform to land use regulations that force our various daily activities into separate zones.

That might sound like an overwhelming obstacle, but two types of land use reform at the local level have extraordinary potential:

  1. Parking minimums. This is when a local government requires a certain amount of vehicle parking spaces for each land use.

  2. Exclusionary zoning. This is when zoning ordinances are used to prohibit certain land uses, like apartments or grocery stores in certain areas or districts.

The key first step is grassroots education.

A prescription for healthy infrastructure.

Research indicates that only about 20% of how long the average person lives is dictated by genes, while about 80 percent is influenced by lifestyle and environment. In other words, where people live has a bigger influence on health than genetics. This concept shared by Blue Zones is an important one to educate people about the urgency of the connections between health and infrastructure. The basic premise is this: What can we learn from regions where people live longer than average?

The Blue Zones model focuses on the single largest determinant of health: the place we live. By tackling the "zip code effect" Blue Zones gets to optimize public policies, social connections, and the places and spaces where people spend the most time (streets, parks, schools, workplaces, grocery stores, faith communities, homes) so that healthy choices are easy and accessible.

We have been supporting Blue Zones, LLC Built Environment expert team helping communities lower healthcare costs, improve productivity, foster economic development, and enjoy a higher quality of life. We facilitate a process that helps people understand the issues involved, assess their readiness for infrastructure improvements, and identify specific opportunities where there’s local appetite for change. Land use and transportation have the potential to play transformational roles in our population’s health and wellness. If this sounds intriguing, send me a note. I’d love to help you improve the health and wellness of your community!

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