Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly influenced by the built environment around us, either positively or negatively. The built environment is the human made environment which provides the setting for human activities, and ranges from apartment buildings to parks and sidewalks. In other words, it is where we live, work and play. When we walk down the street the buildings and spaces around us can make us feel trapped and uninspired if they are gloomy or litter-filled, or make us lifted up, freed and surprised if they are beautiful, carefully designed and full of life. 

Traditionally, housing projects were not created with much emphasis on aesthetics, but meant to house the most people in the most efficient manner. However, studies have shown that an environment tailored to promote health, safety and a life-affirming community can positively influence everyone who lives there. Planned built housing and spaces can work to address the needs of a community and create space for interaction and exercise – and even create jobs and influence levels of employment in the process.

Currently, there is an affordable housing crisis. For every 100 extremely low income households looking for housing, only 29 units are available. In many communities, potential political candidates have even been running on promises to create more housing, but when it comes to the cost of building new living space, it’s hard to make the numbers add up. One thing that can be done is to allow more existing space to be rehabbed and to ease up on things like parking minimums, which can make renovations difficult.

Addressing the shortage will be critical to the continued health of cities, as more people more to urban environments. The lack of affordable housing leads to a decline in physical and mental health, the existence of food deserts, higher unemployment and lower levels of education. A recent study shows that the gap between need and availability continues to grow and that citizens and economies could suffer as a result.

It has long been known that the physical design of the built environment can influence our health, since the Industrial Revolution brought infectious diseases to cities where sanitation and overcrowding created unsafe conditions. Today, the concerns have changed to be more about chronic conditions caused by sedentary lifestyles and such as obesity and heart disease as well as mental health issues associated with isolation and lack of access to outdoor spaces. 

The current link between city planning and health has been recognized to the point that the Centers for Disease Control created a Built Environment and Health Initiative to give state and local governments access to information and funding to use when making plans. The idea was to improve health and therefore reduce healthcare costs, when making informed decisions concerning the built environment.

Safety is also a concern when it comes to biking, walking and other activities, especially for kids. Areas with lower speed limits, more open space and therefore less traffic density and more mixed use all create a safer environment. Other ways to get around more safely include new sidewalks and bike paths, encouraging increased physical activity which also impacts future habits, health and healthcare costs. Considering that two-thirds of American adults are obese, this investment in creating these spaces and encouraging kids to be active is not only an investment in the present, but clearly important for the future of our country’s overall health.

In urban planning offices, there is rarely a public health advocate, which could explain why many urban environments don’t contain enough green space or safe playgrounds. This lack of space creates children who don’t play or exercise and don’t feel motivated by what is available to them. But it has been shown that communities that surround and include green space actually experience less crime than those where “open space” merely means vacant lots. So, beautification can lead to safety which leads to better health. 

Beyond physical health, mental health is also an important part of making changes to the built environment. The level of crowding, noise, structural issues and daylight in buildings all affects its residents. Lack of community spaces can lead to feelings of isolation and worrying about building conditions can adversely affect the quality of life. Therefore, rehabbing or rethinking these interior spaces should include adding gathering spaces, taking away the worry about things malfunctioning, better containing noise and adding to the level of natural indoor light.

In recent years, public health advocates have expanded the definition of the built environment to include access to healthy food and community gardens in addition to the usual assessment for physical health concerns such as walkability and bikeability. Studies have shown that a higher concentration of convenience stores leads to higher levels of childhood obesity, so being able to get to a local grocery store with fresh produce can make a big difference for families trying to eat healthier, fresher foods.

Community gardens can be used to grow food or for general beautification of a neighborhood. Both give residents the opportunity to grow flowers or produce and to see the whole cycle from seed to table. They can also help the climate, the soil and promote mental health and relaxation. And since environmental considerations are part of any community, gardens help with reducing waste and transportation emissions.

Technology has also changed the planning process for the better. Building Information Modeling (BIM) can show both physical and functional characteristics of places and helps planners make informed decisions when revamping housing to better serve its residents and community. Drone surveys and the creation of the intelligent transportation system application – which helps make smarter use of transport systems are also changing the way housing projects are planned and used.

Rehabbing affordable housing can impact an underserved neighborhood in countless ways. From improved mental and physical health through beautification, walk and bike-ability, the creation of community spaces like grocery stores and gardens, to improved safety and the growth that comes from people knowing a neighborhood is well cared for and therefore a place conducive to new businesses. All of these elements come together to make a collection of buildings and spaces into more than that – they create a community.