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Slicker City

"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.

[Image: Las Vegas sprawl via Shutterstock]

"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?"