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February 1, 2024

Built environment shapes public health in unexpected and important ways

Contact: Jon Meerdink ([email protected])

ANN ARBOR — Just as we shape our environment through the things we build, the environment we build shapes us. Everything from ergonomics to green space, air quality, and more stems from the way the world around us has been designed and built.

“Built Environment and Public Health: More Than 20 Years of Progress,” a new paper published this month in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), explores the ways in which the built environment has affected health, public policy, and other issues. The third in a series of papers (previous editions of which have been published in 2013 and 2003), the publication highlights more than two decades of research into the built environment.

Kimberly Rollings, Ph.D., of the Institute for Social Research’s Survey Research Center, is one of four authors on the paper. She believes investigating the effects of our built environment is an important aspect of answering key questions of public health because of how it goes hand in hand with other social issues.

“Similar to computers that require both software and hardware to function, we must consider both social and built environment components when thinking about how our environment affects our health and making healthy places” she said. “The social environment – policies, economics, demographics – is the software and the built environment – the physical components of where we live, work, learn, and play – is the hardware.”

“Built Environment and Public Health: More Than 20 Years of Progress” relies on interdisciplinary research to explore relationships between the built environment and health. Rollings noted crucial progress over the past two decades in related research, practice, and policy.

“We have much better evidence and tools to study the built environment, for example, why we need access to nature and  parks, and whether that access is equitable. More recently, there’s an emphasis on the built environment related to structural racism, COVID-19, and the climate crisis.”

Being a 10-year update on work in the field, the paper naturally focuses some  attention on the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant world event, to say nothing of its impact on Rollings’ research. The pandemic highlighted numerous structural inequalities in the built environment, including access to safe transportation for essential workers and people with low incomes. The pandemic also brought to light some positive developments, like a renewed focus on access to parks and walkable spaces, in addition to strategies for social connection and avoiding loneliness and isolation.

These, in addition to other positive changes over the last decade, including new green building certification systems and affordable housing programs promoting health, have been welcome developments. But Rollings notes they’re not the only changes; some developments in the built environment have been negative.

“Some of these initiatives have had unintended consequences, which have contributed to things like displacement and inequitable distribution of healthy environments and resources.”

Research into the built environment will continue, fueled by interdisciplinary collaboration in a number of areas. And while the research is crucial, Rollings would also like to see improvements in education and training.

“ We need better training for future leadership and the workforce in this area. The skills required to do this work and the available training opportunities don’t align. There are no built environment and health curricular requirements or professional licensing criteria for planners, architects, interior designers, engineers, or public health professionals. We also need to better understand required competencies and career pathways to inform education and training improvements.”
“Built Environment and Public Health: More Than 20 Years of Progress” is available now via AJPH. Previous work on the subject, including papers published in 2013 and 2003, are also available via AJPH.