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As a co-organizer of  Built Environment and Human Health program, I worked with Prof. Sullivan and assembled an amazing group of experts and professionals in a variety of fields: Landscape Architecture, Urban Planning,  Public Health, Architecture. We discussed important issues about the built environment and human health and organized a series of seminars, workshops, and field trips to closely study many issues related to our concern.

Co-organizers

Bin Jiang, Landscape Architecture
Chaihui Wang, Architecture
David Buchner, Kinesiology and Community Health
William Sullivan, Landscape Architecture

Abstract

There is growing recognition that the environments in which we live, work, and play have considerable impact on our health. Although we have some understanding of the extent to which specific elements of the built environment (e.g., exposure to green spaces, crowding, noise) impact health, we lack a comprehensive understanding of the impacts of the built environment on human health and well-being. Lack of a compre¬hensive understanding prevents designers, planners, public health officials and others from comprehending the trade-offs among various design or policy possibilities. Overcoming this gap in our knowledge requires an interdisciplinary collaboration among scholars in public health, medical geography, environmental design and planning, and human and community development.

Through the Built Environment and Human Health Focal Point we are building just such a collaborative team. Our primary tasks during the 2010-2011 academic year are to learn from each other and from the literature in the various fields that we represent – public health, medical geography, environmental design and planning, and human and community development. Learning together will prepare us to seek future funding.

Here is a list of questions generated from members of our group that relate to the four areas we’ve been discussing. These areas are:

•Urban design and physical activity

•Transportation, land use and health

•Design and the development of social capital

•The built environment and psychological health and well-being

We’ll examine the questions in this same order.

Urban Design and Physical Activity

1.Adverse events.   Assuming that we can identify built environmental factors promoting physical activity and mental health and reducing obesity risk.  Is there a downside (health risks) of building communities with these features?  For example, do grid neighborhoods having higher rates of motor vehicle collisions? Does urban green space provide a refuge for feral animals and zoonotic infectious diseases?  How generalizable is the finding from Europe that higher rates of cycling lead to decreased rates of injury per mile of biking?

2.In pursuit of a more bicycle-friendly community, what aspects of design are most effective to increase bicycle use (physical activity)?

3.What amount and quality of physical activity facilities are required in Urban design codes.  What are the estimate investigations?  How do these requirements compare to the health insurance expense within a city?

4.To what extent does the quantitatively and objectively measured accessibility (comparing different measurements of accessibility) to urban green space (considering attributes of quality, function and attractiveness) affect people’s physical activities in the same way as the perceived accessibility to green space?

5.Urban design  effects physical activity directly, through availability of parks, sidewalks, etc and proximity to jobs, shopping, etc., and indirectly through a variety of pathways.  What are these direct and indirect pathways, and how do they relate to physical activity?

6.Can the different types and terrains of the built green environment effect the activities that people are performing; say, can a type of landscape encourage people to do more vigorous activities compare to the other types?

Transportation, Land Use and Health

1.Car-less household are disadvantaged in the automobile-focused landscapes of the U.S. What are the implications of the lack of a car for health in urban, suburban and rural settings?  What are the pathways with respect to physical activity, food access and access to health care?

Design and the Development of Social Capital

1.Can changes in city form help build social capital?  If so how?  And for whom? What are the implications of changes?

2.How does social capital compare in a very bicycle-friendly community versus a lesser one?

3.How does culture impact the design for positive social capital?

The Built Environment and Psychological Health and Well-being

1.Mechanisms.  What is known about biologic mechanisms by which exposure to green space affects wellness/mental health?  Is research on the concept of “allostatic load” useful in conceptualizing mechanisms as a part of a more general process?

2.What are the characteristics of the dose-response curve for the effect of urban nature on human autonomic functioning for varying durations of exposure to a moderate concentration of nature?

3.What are the characteristics of the dose-response curve for the effect of urban nature on human attention, and human autonomic functioning?

4.Guidelines.  Eventually research could lead to public health guidelines regarding exposure to green space or the minimum number of park acreage, etc.  Various groups have proposed minimum amounts of green space in a community.  In what ways does current research inform guidelines for how much green space a population needs?  Note with continous correlational relationships, they may not be an obvious “cutpoint” that indicates a minimum level of connectivity or greenspace for reducing rates of e.g. obesity.

5.To what extent should we be examining not-yet-scientific traditional knowledge such as Feng-Shui or Qi in future research?

6.To what extent and under what conditions are there cultural differences regarding to the relationships between built environment and health and well-being?

7.How might we create valid and reliable measures of the level of “natural” within built settings?

8.We have many ways to measure and evaluate the ecological health of built settings and the impacts of these settings on human health. But we know very little about the relationships between levels of ecological health and their associated impacts on human health. What are these relationships?

9.How can we measure the impact of green spaces on human well-being in a finely integrated way? That is, how can we make clear, specific, detailed measurements of the outcome variables?

10.Through what mechanisms does exposure to green environments impact the autonomic nervous system?

11.To what extent do different forms of urban green space (different vegetation types, patterns, densities and connectivity etc) play a role in improving residents’ quality of life? (A sub-question could be to what extent can different forms of urban green space mitigate the urban heat island problem?).

12.What changes to the built environment can help to improve psychological health and well-being near loud environments, such as airports?

13.What is the impact on incarcerated men’s psychological health and well-being of being involved in gardening and food production?

School Environments and Children’s Health

1.How can we encourage our schools to be more proactive in creating healthy environments for children?  This includes issues of: healthy food zones, nutrition and school meals, physical education for students, and safe routes to schools programs.

2.Are schools that have focused attention on creating healthy environments successful?  How can we evaluate such programs or measure “success”?

3.To what extend does having a green (highly vegetated) campus landscape impact the capacity of students to pay attention and succeed in school?

Ecological Health and Human Health

1.How does land use and land cover change affect the landscape pattern and configuration in suburban and urban areas at different scale (neighborhood, local and regional level)? Does the modifiable area unit problem (MAUP) exist when study focus shifts between different scales?

2.To what extent does subdivision/landscape design governed by local development regulations affect an ecological landscape structure?

3.To what extent is there a connection between landscape structure and human’s functioning?

4.To what extent does landscape structure affect human health, social interaction, community health?

Settings

A variety of settings have been mentioned in the questions above. These settings include:

•Schools

•Urban green spaces

•Neighborhoods and communities

•Suburbs

•Rural settlements

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