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Residential Environments and Health

Posted By Lynne M. Dearborn, Ph.D., Monday, October 17, 2016

For many years, I have known intuitively and through personal experience that the physical environment of housing and the health of the housing’s residents are intimately intertwined. Much of the research sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has demonstrated that the physical environment of neighborhoods: configuration, presence of sidewalks, “walkability,” among other things, influences resident physical health and wellbeing. Other research has demonstrated that the presence of trees, the absence of toxins, the ability to control interaction with neighbors, and feeling safe within the neighborhood also effect resident physical and mental health directly and indirectly. The fact that these characteristics of the physical environment have been shown to matter, is now on the nation’s collective radar screen as the US faces an obesity epidemic that threatens to undermine any gains made in access to affordable health care. While the country’s top executive as well as HUD, the CDC and NIH, now acknowledge the relationship between neighborhoods and health, much work needs to be done to change the model of residential development that creates unhealthy patterns in the physical environment of neighborhoods in the US.

Similar research demonstrating links between the physical environment at the scale of the housing unit and health of the residents has come to light more slowly. It is gratifying, however, to finally be able to locate and apply work from several new studies in this area. Researchers have now documented such things as how the layout of the kitchen and the ability of a family to sit down to meals together influence children’s daily caloric intake and thus play a role in reducing obesity. Likewise, a number of “Breathe Easy Homes” demonstration projects have also shown how specific construction techniques, materials and mechanical systems can decrease asthma triggers within homes.

I am excited by the possibilities that this collection of research offers interior designers, architects, planners, policy-makers and developers who are truly interested in improving human health and wellbeing. I am more optimistic than at anytime in my 30+ years as a designer/researcher that it is possible to make a difference in the lives of people who inhabit the environments we create.

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