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Urban Design & Health

March 02, 2015

A new collaborative team comprised of faculty in Westphal’s Department of Architecture & Interiors and Drexel’s School of Public Health is conducting local research that connects urban design with health and well-being. Their efforts to study the relationship between design and health are poised for success, with the team’s recent selection bythe American Institute of Architects (AIA) as one of 11 inaugural members of the AIA Design & Health Research Consortium. With a special emphasis on the neighborhoods that border Drexel’s campus, where residents face high rates of poverty and health disparities, the team is focusing on creating healthier communities through design thatincorporates natural systems.

“Design and public health have always had a strong connection and the consortium is a perfect way to foster this type of collaboration, underscoring the important role that the built environment plays in the health and well-being of the community,” said Interiors Professor and Urban Design & Health Team member Debra Ruben. The AIA consortium supports research on how design affects public health through workshops and discussion forums. It provides researchers with a platform to share ideas, such as resources for measuring and assessing the built or natural environment and results of related studies, with like-minded researchers and practitioners from across the country.

The Drexel Urban Design & Health Team’s central hypothesis is that aspects of natural systems can be woven into existing urban systems to create healthier populations. The team is working to assess the impact of community-based projects—some of which are already underway, and some that have yet to begin—in West Philadelphia, where Drexel has already committed a number of efforts toward being the most civically engaged university in the nation.For example, as inner-city school kids climb and swing at a state-of-the-art playground with a rain garden and trees, will their surroundings make a difference in their health and social well-being? This question has been at the center of a series of participatory design seminars led by Professor Ruben for the past three years, through which Drexel professors and students have worked closely with the Morton McMichael Elementary School in Mantua to develop plans to transform the school’s playground into a clean, sustainable, and safe place to play. Construction for the new playground is intended to start this summer.

In addition to the McMichael School project, the Urban Design & Health Team will assess the public health impact of several other design projects in neighborhoods near the University’s campus, including the Southwest Philadelphia Greenway, which connects low-income residents with recreational facilities and regional and national trail networks; three community gardening initiatives developed in Mantua, including Backyard Beds, the Mantua Urban Peace Garden, and a garden at Drexel’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships; and a proposed revitalization project for a park at 34th and Brandywine Streets in Mantua, which the team aims to create a new vision for while engaging residents in direct contributions through art-making and creative place-making.

The group aims to generate data that is useful to city residents and policy makers in understanding and addressing the causes of urban health problems and inequalities—and to translate their new knowledge into effective practice and policy to promote health in communities. At the same time, they will train undergraduate and graduate students, as well as community members and external partners, in design and health issues.

Along with Professor Ruben, Westphal faculty team members include Architecture & Interiors Professors Diana Nicholas, Jon P. Coddington, Harris Steinberg, and Eugenia Victoria Ellis, PhD, a joint professor in Westphal and the College of Engineering. Their School of Public Health colleagues include Yvonne L. Michael, ScD, Amy Auchincloss, PhD, Amy Carroll-Scott, PhD, and the school’s dean, Ana Diez Roux, MD, PhD.