How Public Spaces Can Be Designed To Support Our Community Health

By Sara Scheineson, Center for Active Design

From neighborhood sidewalks and local playgrounds, to outdoor plazas and community walking trails, the design of our public space plays a significant role in motivating physical activity and promoting all aspects of health, whether physical, mental, or social. Historically considered distinct variables, we now understand that there is a profound connection between the design of spaces and these various aspects of health.

Glen Oaks Branch Library / Marble Fairbanks. © Eduard Hueber. Architect: Marble Fairbanks.

Our expanded understanding of how the spaces in which we live, work, and play influence our health has motivated a renewed focus on public spaces, once the mainstays of our communities. Using decades of evidence-based research, the Center for Active Design (CfAD) has developed a menu of design strategies that can be employed to create spaces that not only promote more active communities, but also foster improved mental and social health outcomes.

The beauty of these strategies is that they can be applied to spaces not typically thought of as health-promoting. The Glen Oaks Library in Queens, NY is a perfect example of how the design of a space can transform a standard municipal building with no obvious connection to well-being into a health-promoting space for the community.

The Glen Oak Library’s new space was completed in 2013, replacing a 50-year old building that was known by local residents for being overcrowded and out-of-date. The newly designed building incorporates greenery, welcoming signage, modern building design, and outdoor seating to create a more inviting and active community space.

Glen Oaks Branch Library / Marble Fairbanks. © Eduard Hueber. Architect: Marble Fairbanks.

In a community where 25 percent of adults are obese and 13 percent have diabetes, increasing physical activity and improving health outcomes is a key priority. An expansive evidence base supports the design strategies chosen for Glen Oaks Library as those that will encourage local residents to visit the space and impact the overall health of the broader community. By installing outdoor public art and using outdoor benches, the Glen Oaks Library is immediately more enticing for visitors. Whether they are teenagers or seniors, immigrants or born-and-bred New Yorkers, the addition of vibrant, welcoming signage that greets residents as they walk by fosters a sense of connection with the community. Once inside the library, floor to ceiling windows and open space offer visitors access to daylight throughout the library, while the central stair encourages community members to explore the space. Meanwhile, extensive greenery and access to a reading courtyard provide safe access to the outdoors and a connection to nature that supports health and well-being. Despite being located on a busy thoroughfare, the Glen Oaks Library is surrounded by residential neighborhoods and easily reachable by foot, thanks to accessible sidewalks and crosswalks.

Glen Oaks Branch Library / Marble Fairbanks. © Eduard Hueber. Architect: Marble Fairbanks.

If this one library has the power to influence physical, mental, and social health, imagine what is possible if entire neighborhoods are designed with health in mind. The Center for Active Design’s Assembly initiative is exploring that exact question by identifying how place-based design can impact

civic health, ultimately creating healthier communities. The civic health of a community is based on four outcomes: 1) civic trust and appreciation; 2) participation in public life; 3) stewardship of the public realm; and 4) informed local voting. Whether adding planters outside the entrance to city hall or removing litter from a local park, the Assembly Civic Engagement Survey, a part of the Assembly initiative, found that small changes can make a world of difference when it comes to improving civic life and creating a happier, healthier community.

Rooted in the power of design to influence physical activity habits, place-based design strategies are constantly evolving. With this expanding understanding of the relationship between physical, mental, social, and now civic health, we know that through design there is great potential to transform public spaces and create healthier and more resilient communities.

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Disclaimer: The opinions, findings and conclusions expressed by authors of this blog post are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the opinion, views or policies of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH), the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).