Social and Health Implications of What We Build

It’s been difficult to think about the future since the recession began late in 2007.  And, even though economists assure us that this seemingly bottomless downturn ended in 2009, the aftershocks and adverse effects are still very evident.  Recovery, slow though it may be, allows us to envision a future once again for ourselves and for our communities.  As we refocus we notice changes that have occurred while we were busy coping with endless bad news, and we begin to consider again what we want to happen for our ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.

Last week, my colleague, Professor Tom Hammond, showed me Sanford Insurance Company maps of the Lehigh Valley dating as far back as 1885.  Anyone who thinks that the changes are over should study this series of maps– better yet, visit the new Broughal Middle School in Bethlehem, the Overlook Park neighborhood in Allentown, or the Silk Mill project in Easton.  While we once thought of community architecture as a matter of aesthetics or economics (what could we build?), as we look forward we see stunning health, social, and economic benefits that are possible when communities are designed in thoughtful ways.

New interdisciplinary research on the Built Behavior and Health is being conducted by teams of urban planners, architects, developers, social and health scientists, economists and others, and is funded by the federal government.  The findings from this research reveal significant relationships between the design of the built environment and multiple health and social outcomes, including obesity, asthma, mental illness, cognitive functioning, educational attainment, and all-cause mortality.  Further, we are beginning to understand how to strengthen “social capital”, or the fundamental sense of “community”,  at the same time.  How we design our future community, then, will undeniably affect our well-being.  Moreover– when input from residents, stakeholders, and cultural groups is considered in community design and redesign, results are even more beneficial.  Collaborative events, called “charrettes”, are increasingly common and involve a series of design-input-revision sequences that seek diverse perspectives– even from the children who live in a community– about what is most needed.

In sum, we can think about the future in ways that will benefit our children, our elders, our health, and our economic well-being if we consider evidence and findings from this new field of inquiry.  As we continue to pull ourselves out of the economic downturn, we can turn our attention back to the social and health implications of what we build.  The benefits will be tangible.

Our guest blogger, Dr. Arnold Spokane, is a Professor of Education and Psychology at Lehigh University.  Dr. Spokane specializes in the transdisciplinary study of person-environment interaction in work and urban community settings across cultures.  A long-time contributor to the vocational psychology literature, he is increasingly working in the field of public health psychology, disaster mental health, and the nature of individual and culturally-driven responses to both extreme and damaged environments.  Contact Dr. Spokane at

Posted on February 29, 2012, in Neighborhoods, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Some thoughts and perspectives on LANta’s 40th anniversary. How transport is planned and designed has much to do with how communities grow and how they are built.

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