Families peruse stands offering a variety of fresh foods at a farmers market in downtown Milwaukee / Photo: Ethan Kent

According to Dr. Richard Jackson, a pioneering public health advocate and former CDC official now serving as the Chair of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA, the idea that buildings, streets, and public spaces play a key role in the serious public health issues that we face in the US “has undergone a profound sea change in the past few years. It’s gone from sort of a marginal, nutty thing to becoming something that’s common sense for a lot of people.”

That’s good news, but as a profile of Dr. Jackson in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes, today’s click-driven media climate means that the message of public health advocates like Jackson is “often pithily condensed to a variation of this eye-catching headline: ‘Suburbia Makes You Fat.'” And while these pithily-titled articles may do some good in alerting more people to the problems inherent in the way that we’ve been designing our cities and towns for the past half-century, they oversimplify the message and strip out one of the most important factors in any effort to change the way that we shape the places where we live and work: social capital.

Highways, parking lots, cars, big box stores–these are merely symptoms of a larger problem: many people have become so used to their surroundings looking more like a suburban arterial road than a compact, multi-use destination that they’ve become completely disconnected from Place. Real life is lived amongst gas stations and golden arches; we have to visit Disneyland to see a thriving, compact Main Street. To question a condition that’s so pervasive, as individuals, seems futile.

Bikers and walkers chat at a market in Portland, OR / Photo: npGREENWAY via Flickr

That’s why, if we want to see people challenging the way that their places are made on a larger scale, we need to focus first on developing the loose social networks that are so vital to urban resilience. This is the stuff Jane Jacobs was talking about when she wrote, in the Death and Life of Great American Cities, that “lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life must grow.” When people are connected enough to feel comfortable talking about what they want for their neighborhood with their neighbors, it’s much easier to muster political will to stop, say, a highway from cutting through Greenwich Village–or, in contemporary terms, to tear down a highway that was actually built.

In Dr. Jackson’s words: “The key thing is to get the social engagement. Community-building has to happen first; people need to articulate what’s broke, and then what they want.” Serendipitously, gathering to discuss a vision for a healthier future is an ideal way to build the social capital needed to turn the understanding that our built environment is hurting us into action to change the existing paradigm. At PPS, we have seen first-hand how the Placemaking process has brought people together in hundreds of cities around the world with the goal of improving shared public spaces; it’s a process that strengthens existing ties, creates new ones, and invigorates communities with the knowledge of how they can make things happen.

The Healthy Places Program (HPP), which began last year as a collaboration between staff members working in PPS’s Public Markets and Transportation programs. “There are many different elements that make up a healthy community,” says Aurash Khawarzad, an Associate in PPS’s Transportation division, and a key player in getting HPP off the ground. “There are social factors, environmental factors, etc–and what we at PPS can do is take these people in our offices who are focusing on their own areas and bring them together.”

Aurash Khawarzad leads a Healthy Places workshop in upstate New York / Photo: PPS

With that collaborative mission in mind, Khawarzad and Kelly Verel, a Senior Associate in PPS’s Public Markets division, set out on a trip across New York last fall to facilitate a series of day-long Healthy Places workshops with local, regional, and state public health officials and a host of community partners. In partnership with the New York Academy of Medicine’s DASH-NY, the PPS team visited a range of communities, from rural towns, to suburban stretches, to major and mid-sized cities. The workshops were designed to help participants understand how multi-modal transportation systems can be better designed to create a network that links a series of destinations, including healthy food hubs and markets, to create a built environment that promotes well-being by making healthy lifestyle choices (like walking, biking, and eating fresh food) more convenient and fun. They focused not just on what wasn’t working, but on brainstorming ways that participants’ communities could become truly healthy places.

Any expert worth their salt will tell you that maintaining good health is not just about exercise or diet, but both together. In much the same way, addressing the problem of bad community design and its impacts on Public Health requires that we not just promote better transportation or better food access alone, but that we focus on both simultaneously. “The reaction we got from the the Healthy Places training attendees was really good,” notes Verel. “I think people have been really siloed in their efforts. We would ask people what they were doing and they would say ‘access to food in schools,’ or ‘rails to trails,’ and that they focus exclusively on that area.”

Understanding public health within the context of Place is essential, because the problems created and reinforced by our built environment are so broad in scope. HPP takes that case directly to local decision-makers and creates a learning environment where they can build their understanding of how Place effects health together, in a cross-disciplinary setting. This “silo-busting” is absolutely critical; as Dr. Jackson writes in the introduction to his latest book, Designing Healthy Communities (a companion to the four-part PBS special of the same name):

“For too long we have had doctors talking only to doctors, and urban planners, architects, and builders talking only to themselves. The point is that all of us, including those in public health, have got to get out of the silos we have created, and we have got to connect—actually talk to each other before and while we do our work—because there is no other way we can create the environment we want. Public health in particular must be interdisciplinary, for no professional category owns public health or is legitimately excused from it.”

The emphasis, there, is added, as this phrase strike at the heart of the problem we face. To shift the default development model from “low-density, use-segregated, and auto-centric” to one that promotes healthy, active lifestyles and more vibrant communities will take strong leadership from people who aren’t afraid to work across departments, and “turn everything upside-down to get it right side up.” PPS is certainly not the only organization to recognize this, and we’re thrilled to be part of a growing movement. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has its own Healthy Community Design Initiative program. Internationally, Urban Age made designing for public health the subject of a major conference in Hong Kong held late last year (from which a full report is now available).

New bike lanes are just one part of Pro Walk / Pro Bike: "Pro Place" host city Long Beach, CA's strategy to become "Biketown USA" / Photo: waltarrrrr via Flickr

Of course, individual citizens have hardly been waiting around and twiddling their thumbs. Active transportation, healthy food, and community gardening advocates have been working for decades on the ground, pushing for incremental changes to the way our cities and towns operate. Just through the robust conversations taking place online around issues like #completestreets, #biking, and #urbanag, it’s easy to see how well-organized and resonant these movements have become. Mounting public awareness is pushing more public officials toward programs like HPP, to learn about how focusing on Place can facilitate inter-agency collaboration around the common cause of improving public health.

Whether you’re looking at this issue from the top-down or the bottom-up, there will be several opportunities to gather with active transportation and public markets professionals, advocates, and enthusiasts from around the world this fall for debate, discussion, and more of that vital social capital development. As part of the Healthy Places Program, PPS is hosting two conferences, just one week apart: the 17th Pro Walk / Pro Bike: “Pro Place” conference in Long Beach, CA (Sept. 10-13); and the 8th International Public Markets Conference in Cleveland, OH (Sept. 21-23).

Cleveland, which will host the 8th International Public Markets Conference in September, is home to the historic, bustling West Side Market / Photo: Catherine V via Flickr

If you’re approaching Healthy Places from the transportation world, Pro Walk / Pro Bike (#prowalkprobike) will explore how efforts to advocate for safer and better infrastructure for active transportation modes are being greatly enhanced as more and more people learn about the benefits of getting around on their own two feet (with or without pedals). If you’re more of a “foodie,” the Public Markets conference (#marketsconf8) will highlight the burgeoning local food scene in Cleveland and throughout Northeastern Ohio, and will spotlight the iconic West Side Market, arguably the most architecturally significant market building in the US. Both events will focus on how supporters of active transportation and public markets, respectively, can grow their movements by busting down silos and thinking h0listically about how their chosen cause can be part of the effort to create Healthy Places.

If you can’t make it to Long Beach or Cleveland, there are plenty of Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper steps that you can take to get your neighbors together and talking, out in public space, building local connections. “Something like a playstreet or a summer street shows people that, not only do they like this kind of varied activity and flexibility and want more of it in their community’s streets, but that they can actually make it happen,” Verel explains. “It takes more basic manpower–putting up tents, handing out flyers–than actual lobbying or money to get the DOT to shut down a street for one day and focus on social interaction and healthy activity.”

And you can start even smaller than that. PPS mentor Holly Whyte once wrote that “We are not hapless beings caught in the grip of forces we can do little about, and wholesale damnations of our society only lend a further mystique to organization. Organization has been made by man; it can be changed by man.” If our problem is that we have become siloed and isolated, at work and in our neighborhoods, then the most immediate way for us to start re-organizing is to reach out to the people around us, with something as simple as a friendly “hello” on the street. An interaction like this might seem ‘lowly, unpurposeful, and random’–but at the very least, it will make you feel happier and more connected to your community. And guess what? That’s good for you, too.

So, here’s to your health!

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Click here to register for Pro Walk / Pro Bike: “Pro Place”

(Early Summer rate available until June 29)

Click here to register for the 8th International Public Markets Conference
(Early bird rate available until July 31)
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A Playstreet-style fundraiser for cicLAvia in Los Angeles / Photo: waltarrrrr via Flickr