Nine design principles that support collective well-being.
I love where I live. It’s not the most upscale neighborhood in my city, but it’s rich in the elements that make for a vibrant, connected community. There’s a bus stop at the end of my block, a food co-op down the street, a new library around the corner, four nearby parks I visit while walking my dog, a good mix of single-family homes and apartment buildings, and neighbors who represent a wide range of ethnicities, ages, and incomes.
As it turns out, my love of these features isn’t a fluke. They’re all elements of the nine principles of healthy neighborhoods, as defined by the University of Virginia’s Center for Design and Health and Hart Howerton, a New York City and San Francisco–based interdisciplinary design firm.
These urban-design guidelines aim to help planners create developments, neighborhoods, and communities that better support residents’ physical, social, and emotional well-being. As Hart Howerton managing principal Tim McCarthy points out, “A lot of living happens between buildings.”
“We’re starting to realize that reactive healthcare isn’t sustainable,” says McCarthy. “We need to move to a more proactive mindset and break down the silos between designers, physicians, and governments. Then we can develop environments that improve health outcomes and help alleviate the burden of treating chronic conditions at a macroeconomic level.”
At the individual and community levels, the more attention policy makers, designers, and developers pay to these principles, the more likely it is we’ll all be able to proclaim our love for our neighborhoods — and the healthy, supported, and connected lives they enable us to lead.
We know that stress plays a vital role in undermining wellness — whether it’s caused by commuting, isolation, homogeneity, lack of exercise, or estrangement from nature — so it’s not surprising that stress reduction is the common thread connecting these nine principles of healthy neighborhoods.
1. Smart location
People live within walking distance of the services they need and use frequently — grocery stores, parks, schools, libraries — and have safe and easy access to public transit. Residents can meet basic needs without using a car, which saves money, and walking on errands provides routine physical movement and social interaction.
2. Nature is integrated
Green spaces are abundant, or at least present. Natural landscapes help maintain and cleanse the environment by removing harmful toxins from the air and water, while trail networks and open space promote physical activity and psychological well-being.
3. Land use is mixed
Combining housing, schools, shops, and places of worship in a compact area provides easy access to services and decreases reliance on cars. This supports physical and social well-being.
4. Includes a variety of housing types
A mix of apartment buildings, small homes, and larger homes that can accommodate multi-generational families naturally encourages economic and demographic diversity. Combining incomes and generations decentralizes poverty, enables “aging in place,” and encourages attainable housing for community members of all backgrounds, income levels, and ages.
5. Offers alternatives to driving
People in pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities have a reduced risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease and enjoy more routine social interaction.
6. Encourages pride of place
Healthy neighborhoods host high-quality public spaces and regular gatherings (like festivals, fairs, and seasonal attractions) that encourage residents to come out of their homes to exercise, meet, and mingle. This builds social capital and a sense of community.
7. Provides access to healthy foods
Backyard and community gardens, farmers’ markets, food co-ops, and grocery stores that offer a wide range of fresh vegetables and fruits are critical amenities that support wellness.
8. Enables lifelong learning
Community members of all ages and backgrounds have opportunities to share their skills, knowledge, and experience with others through mentoring, book clubs, informal lectures, classes, and workshops, all of which promote feelings of growth, self-sufficiency, and connectedness.
9. Incorporates sustainable development
Low-impact development and green building technologies yield positive benefits for human health as well as the environment.