There is a drastic public health problem in America. Our auto-centric, sedentary lifestyles and bad eating habits have created a nation with 75 percent of the population expected to be overweight by 2015, at a ridiculously high cost of $117 billion dollars a year! Obesity leads to numerous health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The design of our environment plays a major role in the cause of, as well as the solution to, this major health crisis. Many of our cities are clogged with traffic caused by urban sprawl, with no safe and enjoyable places for people to walk or bike and just be outdoors.
Landscape architects design the balance between the built and natural environment. Actually, landscape architects have been designing solutions for better public health long before this modern public-health crisis. Tree-lined streets with sidewalks provide cleaner air, animal habitat, and they reduce urban heat gain, as well as provide a low cost, healthy alternative to the driving a car. The health crisis has made communities become more aggressive about providing alternatives to promote healthy lifestyles for their citizens. Landscape architects also design bike lanes and greenway trails that encourage the public to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.
A park is a perfect example of a “win-win” solution for the environment and for our citizens. Parks and greenways provide green space that functions as “lungs” for our urban environment by preserving trees that sequester carbon and improve air quality. Parks provide green cover that reduces rain water run-off and allows stormwater to infiltrate back into the earth, improving our water quality. Parks also provide habitat for numerous species, helping protect and preserve natural systems.
Yet parks also provide so much benefit for public enjoyment and exercise! All across the nation, regardless of their size or shape, our nation’s parks are filled with people playing, exercising, visiting, and enjoying fresh air and sunshine.
Parks and public spaces also connect neighborhoods, increase community pride, and foster the general welfare of those who live nearby. Real estate is more valuable closer to a park or outdoor space. Parks often play host to community gatherings and functions, as well as garden plots and urban farming projects. These gardens grow healthy and sustainable fresh produce in urban areas that are considered “food deserts,” and they provide a wonderful interpretative educational opportunity.
Pavilions are an important part of getting people outside. Landscape architects place these shelters to entice people to walk to them, and they are often sited to afford wonderful views to the landscape beyond. Pavilions provide a place to rest along the way, as well as shade to shield us from too much exposure to the sun. Pavilions are also designed to be accessible, so that all ages and abilities can enjoy a wonderful outdoor setting. Pavilions provide a central location for meeting up with friends, as well as large family reunions. They also serve as outdoor classrooms or performance spaces, or as a quiet place for reading, sketching, or playing a musical instrument while enjoying outdoors.
The research is clear. Residents in communities located in areas without access to outdoor space are more likely to suffer from chronic health problems such as heart disease and high blood pressure. Countless studies show that walking for just minutes a day improves one’s overall health, as well as one’s mood.
As healthcare costs continue to soar and the obesity epidemic shows no signs of waning, the design skills needed to develop “complete streets,” parks, and greenways will continue to rise in importance. Landscape architects design for healthy, active living in healthy, sustainable environments.
Learn more about how landscape architects are designing the way forward by visiting asla.org/animations and viewing “Design for Active Living,” “Revitalizing Communities with Parks,” and “The Edible City.”
We all need to realize how now, more than ever, our parks and public spaces improve public and environmental health. Let’s all commit to being a part of the solution.
Susan M. Hatchell, FASLA, PLA, LEED AP BD+C
President, American Society of Landscape Architects