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Community Design

Community Design and Health

Public health problems in the U.S., such as motor vehicle-related injuries, obesity, physical inactivity, and breathing and heart problems related to air pollution are all influenced by the design of our communities. Designing communities that encourage healthy choices is critical to improving the health and quality of life of community members. Community design and personal behaviors influence public health issues, such as injury, physical activity, obesity, and health problems due to pollution.
Community design elements include:

Mature lady sitting on subway platform reading a newspaperThese elements influence the health of the environment and personal behaviors. For example, neighborhoods that are far from everyday places, such as schools and workplaces, and have busy streets and few sidewalks may have increased air pollution from motor vehicles. These types of neighborhoods may discourage people from walking or bicycling.

Community design is an important public health issue because it is closely connected to many health and behavioral issues. Many of the public health actions used to improve one health outcome also help other health outcomes. For example, reducing the speed limit in neighborhoods can reduce the number of motor vehicle-related injuries and encourage more people to be active by make it safer to walk and bicycle.

Well-developed standards exist for some aspects of community design, such as building codes and street design for motor vehicles. But often these standards do not consider all groups equally. For example, transportation agencies routinely look at streets to determine how well they work for drivers. But official consideration for pedestrians and bicyclists is often an afterthought.

Community design may affect certain populations more than others. For example, people who cannot drive because of age, income level, or disability rely on other types of transportation. Everyone is unable to drive at some point in their lives. When the design of communities makes walking, bicycling, or taking public transportation unsafe or difficult, vulnerable populations suffer.

The primary way to promote health through community design is to make sure there is access to many types of transportation, healthy food, safe housing, and public spaces that promote health. These include access to:

A father carrying his son at an outdoor market
  • public transportation, like buses or trains,
  • sidewalks and bike paths,
  • stores that sell food, especially those stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables,
  • safe and energy efficient housing, and
  • parks and public spaces.

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