An increasing world population coupled with a growing awareness of the relationship between built and natural environments has led to an upsurge in architects becoming involved with public health concerns. Well-being is clearly impacted by the materials, buildings and communities surrounding us and in the realm of urban planning, it is up to building professionals to create places for us to live and work that make us feel happy, safe and connected.

A New Kind of Collaboration

Architects have long collaborated with other professionals, but working alongside engineers, interior designers, contractors and tradespeople is no longer enough. Architecture and health has become the new focus and buildings can no longer be designed without an in-depth consideration of the end-user’s well-being. Partnerships with research institutes, environmental groups, governments and most importantly, the community itself are becoming integral steps in the design and construction process.

Rebuilding the Human Spirit

This necessity is made most clear in areas where extreme weather or war has damaged both an urban centre’s infrastructure and sense of safety. In Kitakami, Japan – a city hit hard by the 2011 tsunami – architect Fumihiko Sasaki collaborated with the client on the We Are One Market and Youth Centre, a building that provides community members with fresh food and a space for gatherings. The brainchild of local Naomi Sato, the market also employs mothers from the community to sell the food and supervise the youth activities. Rebuilding Kitakami and other cities like it is not only about rebuilding physical structures. As architects like Sasaki and residents like Sato know, rebuilding the human spirit should be the true focus.

A Health-Centric Approach

The health-centric approach isn’t only for areas that have experienced sudden devastation. The majority of healthcare professionals agree that the current state of the built environment has degraded rather than improved the population’s well-being. It’s a somewhat sobering fact that buildings created by humans for humans are negatively impacting our health, but organizations such as the American Institute of Architects are taking initiative to rectify this issue. The AIA has partnered with other well-known institutions such as the MIT Centre for Advanced Urbanism to develop and implement innovative solutions to strengthen the relationship between urban planning and public health.

The Power of Architecture

The AIA’s Local Leaders Healthier Communities Through Design is one report demonstrating how these issues need to be dealt with at the community level. Policies and incentives must be introduced encouraging design professionals to create buildings that use non-toxic materials and promote physical activity. According to the AIA’s findings, the key is to integrate healthy living into every aspect of the urban landscape. Commercial design featuring living streets and easy access to fresh foods. Residential communities that are livable for all ages and offer quality affordable housing. Active transit options including walking, running and bicycling. It all starts with architecture, which may have the power to create health and wellness issues, but it also has the power to connect, inspire and heal.