How architects’ design-thinking improves our health

Our country is in the middle of public health crisis that affects more than a third of all adults, 17 percent of our children, and nearly 8 million individuals unwittingly. The crisis is obesity and diabetes.

We all know this health crisis stems from a lack of exercise and poor access to quality foods. Architects, however, are working with the medical community to change the trend.

Weight and diet are already complex and sensitive topics to discuss with others, so how can architects stem the tide of these chronic diseases? One solution lies in design thinking — a visionary role that architects and planning can have on the nation’s public health.

Cleveland's MetroHealth Medical Center by HKS Architects.

Cleveland’s MetroHealth Medical Center by HKS Architects.


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.

The High Line. Photo: New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

The High Line. Photo: New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

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 tourists from around the world.

Creativity shows us that design and health can provide innovative solutions to the obesity epidemic. But 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.

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.

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.

A version of this article also appeared in the Huffington Post.