"We Have Designed Cities To Make People Ill"

At the AIA convention in Chicago, professor Thomas Fisher entreats architects to "take responsibility" for designing healthier spaces.

"We are all suffering from the bad design in the world," Thomas Fisher, an architecture professor and dean of the University of Minnesota's design college, declared at a panel at the American Institute of Architects convention in Chicago yesterday. Fisher was part of a discussion on the link between public health and architecture with Heather R. Britt and Jess Roberts of Allina Health, a Minnesota-based not-for-profit health care system.

"We have designed cities to make people ill," Fisher said. Cars are "the biggest killer of everyone under 34. Every time we design a building that requires you to drive to it we’re endangering the lives of the people who use it." Not to mention the impact car-oriented development has had on rates of obesity. "We have to take responsibility to design a much healthier environment," he said.

Thomas Fisher

Architects have a long history in the public health sector. During the Civil War, Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape architect, served as director of the Sanitary Commission, a predecessor to the American Red Cross.

In service to that ideal, Fisher called for the demystification of design thinking and architects' process. "What we have to offer isn’t just knowledge about facilities. It is a way of thinking and working that is very useful to the public health world," he said, asserting that "our profession has wanted to mystify what we do--that has got to come to an end."

It also requires thinking of the intersections of health, architecture, and design more broadly. "It’s not just keeping people safe or meeting the building codes or fire codes, it is really a responsibility about keeping populations healthy," he said. That applies to all sectors of design, not just architects: "The physical element is part of this, but our graphic design colleagues are certainly a part of promoting sugary foods," he said.

As enormous of an issue it is to combat public health problems like obesity, it's also an "enormous design opportunity," he pointed out--one that should be baked into the design of every building. "Why not make it easy to take the stairs?"

[Image: Las Vegas sprawl via Shutterstock]

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13 Comments

  • Adam Ferrari

    Thomas Fisher has a wealth more data and examples in his books, I highly recommend them. His message is actually one of positivity; how we as architects may advance the profession as well as enhance the public and private realm. Much more than the sensational headline eludes.

  • In addition to the health of the users of design and architecture we need to consider how poor design can "Dis Able" otherwise able bodied, sensed and minded people. This in turn can negatively impact health and the safety of the building, space, design users. It is time for ID's and Architects to sit with Human Factors/Ergonomic experts who provide all of the human centred design research from the mind to the body to the senses. Then and only then will Designers ensure designs look great and function well. JESleeth Principal Optimal Performance Consultants Canada

  • Roberto Norori

    Is this lunacy or what? we are not designing cities to make people ill or to get them killed by automobiles. Sometimes I am wondering, that in order to sound different; we come to the public spotlight and we throw a couple of ideas and concepts, which if we look them into the realm of our lives they are really far from the reality; we are all living in, and even in the so called communities designed under the concepts of the new urbanism, the panacea of the almost perfect community; obesity and sickness does exists. I believe what Mr. Fisher called for in his appearance at this seminar was for a necessary balance of all necessary and required orders to create a city, but Ido not share his ideas when he stated that we need the design each building thinking on the concept of people using the stairs instead of the elevators, then, I only can thing are all these cities to be created and designed just like a cutting cookie recipe?

  • Roberto you may have heard of Active Design but in case you have not you may want to look at the work and research of people who specialize in this area - one of whom is a Professor and Dean at OCAD U in Toronto, Canada. This work takes the concept outlined in Mr Fishers talk and takes it further from there. Food for thought as someone who has seen how design impacts human health (our firm then "cleans up" after the poor design and build using ergonomics and design). JESleeth OPC Inc

  • Arek Taylor

    Cars... obesity... stairs... all focused on future structures. What about the negative psychological effects of blight in existing manmade environments? I could, for example, design a magnificent structure in San Francisco's Tenderloin, but would it be pleasant to walk, bike, or commute to? No. We need to begin creating healthy, attractive environments using zoning laws and initiatives to eradicate decades of billboards, Coca-Cola and Newport advertisements, "modern" façades, cheap signage, garbage-filled lots, chain link fences and boarded up windows so that maybe residents can have pride in their neighborhoods and visitors will enjoy being in them. That, more than any (I could say manipulative) new school of architecture would improve the lives of people from Bangor to Bothell, and in-between.

  • Chelsie Sutherland

    If you have to commute by car every day just to get to work or get to the section of town you need to be to run errands, meaning your neighborhood has nothing within walking distance, taking a flight of stairs every day isn't going to do anything.

    Taking a flight of stairs also isn't going to help people with motor function disabilities, people with illnesses that affect their muscles and joints, those with wheelchairs, those who need walkers and canes, those with arthritis, and the elderly - just to name a few.

  • HI CHelsie - I think when people say "take the stairs" this is really a general term to induce people of all abilities to become more active. As a Physiotherapist and Human Factors Design specialist we know in our practice that ALL people of all functional levels can and should be more active. The trick is A. get Designers and Architects and Builders to design accessible and more active buildings and B. have policies and incentives in place to drive people to become active within their built environment. Max Miller asks in his response how difficult is it to get people to take the stairs? Well, have a look at obesity in the US closely followed by high rates in parts of Canada and the answer is there. VERY. Great discussion everyone. JESleeth Principal Optimal Performance Consultants Inc Canada

  • William Henry Rice

    If you have difficulty swallowing the relationship between private automobile commutes and mortality rates (even those measured only in terms of vehicle accidents) I'll refer you to insurance actuarial statistics. Miles driven translate statistically to predictable mortalities and injuries. Not only for the occupants but for pedestrians and cyclists. One of the single greatest dangers to my own urban child is the suburban commuter - a stat off-set by a much lower danger due to reduced time spent in a private car. Add indirect impacts and well . . . .