What if we can build better health outcomes?

The way we design the built environment can have enormous impacts on public health. Engineering our buildings, transportation, infrastructure and communities to positively influence healthy lifestyle choices could make a meaningful difference toward health care costs, chronic disease rates and mental wellness.

Last year, a colleague approached me to discuss public health work in “bridging the gap between engineering and health.” I was intrigued and more than a little interested in the topic, but I wasn’t sure our conversation would take us anywhere fruitful. Several other events happened around the same time which, independently, would not have led me to this research.

But together? They demonstrated a powerful need for it.

  • I’d recently been on a panel on diversity in design at the Canadian Society for Civil Engineers conference, but I didn’t immediately see the obvious connection to health.
  • The Chief Medical Officer of Canada’s recent State of Public Health report was on Designing Healthy Living, which focused on how the built environment influenced our health.
  • A medical doctor and researcher friend of mine had been strongly advocating for exercise as a prescribed remedy.
  • Regional health authorities had started requesting research and recommendations into built environment improvements for health.

There is certainly a growing movement around designing and planning our built environment for preventive health, rather than only focusing on treatment. I discovered that our own planners and active transport professionals at WSP were already involved in understanding these types of connections. But not all of our designers and planners were equally aware. I sensed we needed to know more about these connections and embed them more explicitly into our designs across all our work.

We decided to interview professionals across Canada with a wide variety of backgrounds, including public health, medicine, facilities design and operation, and insurance. The result? Our newly released Health and the Built Environment whitepaper.

Two things struck me through the research

See the future more clearly: The first was learning of the huge projected increases in rates of diabetes, cancer, mental illness and obesity. By 2030, we will see a 13 per cent rise in obesity, a 40 per cent rise in new cancer cases, a 41 per cent rise in diabetes prevalence, and a 200 per cent cost increase for mental illness.

Design for it today: The second was learning that the most important determinant of health is where you live. This means that lower-income individuals and families, who are already at a significant disadvantage, have it even harder when it comes to health. But what was heartening about the research is that if we design built environments the same way in lower-income neighbourhoods as we do in higher-income neighbourhoods, most of the differences in health outcomes between lower- and higher-income people… disappear!

As an engineer, I’d never appreciated the extent to which the details in our designs affect physical and mental health. As we begin to introduce these concepts to our planners, engineers and other designers of the built environment at WSP, I hope that these best practices will spread throughout the wider industry and become part of the curricula in universities and schools.

As planners, engineers, architects and landscape architects, we have at our fingertips these powerful tools to help reverse trends in cancer, diabetes, mental illness and obesity. To save the Canadian government billions of dollars in healthcare costs and improve the mental and physical health of Canadians, we just need two things: an awareness of how to do it, and more resources to shift from treatment to prevention.

Read WSP Canada’s whitepaper on Health and the Built Environment, and join the conversation on social media.

Health and the Built Environment