Architects of Health

Architects of Health
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The next time you and your family pull away from that convenient drive-through at a fast-food outlet, consider these very inconvenient facts:

• More than 35 percent of Americans are obese, and more than 34 percent are overweight.

• Obesity affects 17 percent of all of our children, a statistic which is three times higher than just a generation ago.

• Almost 10 percent of us have diabetes. Even worse, more than 8 million of us are diabetic and don't even know it.

We all know that America's health crisis stems from such things as a lack of exercise and poor access to quality foods. Architects, however, are working with the medical community to change the trend.

How can we stem the tide of chronic diseases? One solution lies in design thinking -- a visionary role that architects and planning can have on the nation's public health. Whether it's a health care facility that encourages physical exercise as a recovery regimen, or the use of natural sunlight to help students increase their attention span in schools, architects and public health officials are teaming up in ways unforeseen a generation ago.

For example, MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio has morphed from an isolated hospital into an inclusive community health center. A new master plan developed with architecture firm HKS envisions the Center as the focus of a county-wide approach to health care: from clinics, seminars and music festivals, to traditional inpatient care. The design vision of the MetroHealth center extends far into the total community through social activities such as the 11 school-based health clinics in the area; approaching local urban farms to purchase food for the city's healthy food initiatives; and revamping the parks, bike paths and fitness centers to impact lifestyle choices in the Cleveland area.

At the High Line, a vibrant public place and park that occupies the elevated rail line through Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, the city is expanding and building. Landscape architect James Corner and the architecture firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro joined forces to transform the black steel columns that once supported train tracks into supports for an elevated park--part promenade, part town square, part botanical garden. This wide open elevated space, with views that span the Hudson River, encourages walking and other forms of exercise and draws tourist from around the world.

Creative solutions show us that design and health can provide innovative solutions to the obesity epidemic. But much more education is needed. That's why both architecture and medical schools are pushing for more training at the undergraduate level, suggesting that medical schools offer an architectural design track as part of their curriculum. Collaboration in academia promises that a new generation of architects will emerge, designing cities and neighborhoods that encourage exercise and physical activity as a way to combat obesity and other chronic disease.

Architecture students are already asking for courses that can teach them how to design buildings that improve public health. This fall, the College of Architecture at Texas Tech University is planning to offer a Master of Science in Architecture -- with Specialization in Design and Health. At Philadelphia-based Thomas Jefferson University, a health sciences school, emergency medicine physician Dr. Bon Ku teaches design thinking to medical students as the director of the design program at Sidney Kimmel Medical College. The program is the first in the country to develop a design curriculum spanning all four years of medical school.

This spring, Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers a course on the impact of buildings on health, productivity and sustainability. The course offering is part of a larger effort within the school to bring together designers and health scientists with a joint degree program between the two Harvard schools now under development in Cambridge, Mass., says Joe Allen, Assistant Professor, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who teaches the spring semester course.

For a new generation of design professionals and public health officials, the challenges of the epidemic of chronic disease may seem daunting. Two professions -- architecture and public health -- are now responding to that urgent need for graduates with combined degrees. More programs may follow as students demand that training -- a sign that they have signed up to wage war on the most pernicious health issue of our time.

Robert Ivy is CEO of the American Institute of Architects