The Interdisciplinary Design Institute of Washington State University Spokane held its Sixth Annual Design Research Conference October 7-8 to discuss a variety of interesting topics, from investigating the calming properties of wood to sustainable aging in the built environment. This was an interactive conference where presenters and students from a wide range of disciplines participated in different venues to facilitate the exchange of ideas. The relationship between design and human health goes far beyond health care facilities and hospitals, so how do we define what “Designing Health” really means?
“Design” is a dynamic and multi-faceted term. Both verb and noun, it originates in the Latin designare, or, “to mark out.” Thus, design can be understood as both a mental activity that involves the study and transformation of our physical and intellectual surroundings; and as the products of such activity. Design and health have many areas of overlap. How do the designs of our environments, including such specific characteristics as light, color, material, and dimension; and more general characteristics such as proximity to nature, other human beings, and basic services, affect our health? Can good design contribute to good health, and if so, how can we study this relationship and facilitate the most healthful outcomes?
Even the word “health” is subject to interpretation. For our purposes, the World Health Organization definition fits nicely: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” With that holistic view in mind, it becomes clear that the design of homes, neighborhoods, and entire communities can have a huge impact on our individual sense of well-being.
Matthew Cohen, an associate professor of architecture at WSU, expands on this idea of designing for health at multiple levels. Although architects are creating individual buildings using healthful products, natural light, and other “gizmos,” Cohen notes that pedestrian and bike-friendly urban design packs the real punch for reducing health problems. In his words, “excessive use of the automobile is the single greatest risk in the U.S. today that designers can influence,” and the evidence stands up for itself:
Suburban development often equals more driving and less exercise.
Carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles in urban areas reduce air quality and worsen respiratory issues.
Perhaps most importantly, people sitting in closed vehicles interact less with one another, contributing to a decline in health as measured by socially fulfilling lives.
So, what are Spokanites doing to improve our community’s health by design? The re-conquering of pedestrian-friendly zones like Main Avenue between Browne and Division is a great example of the sort of urban design that contributes to individual and communal well-being. Incorporating elements of unique Spokane culture with attractions like the Community Building, Main Market, and the Saranac, the Main Street reclamation encourages interaction among residents and visitors, to everybody’s benefit.
Other examples include the efforts to improve bicycle safety in Downtown Spokane and the development of walkable, exciting areas like the International District. Future residential areas like Kendall Yards, with an up-front commitment to the cycling and pedestrian lifestyle, mark another positive trend for Spokane.
At the WSU conference, keynote speaker Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces made the point that urban design should create great places for people, not just cars. Let’s keep encouraging Spokane’s urban planning in that direction. Which spaces would you choose to redesign for a healthier Spokane?