Improving Urban Design to Promote Public Health

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While many solutions to the pandemic appear easy—washing hands, wearing masks, and social distancing—much in urban design and architecture complicates strict guidelines adherence. How do you stay six feet apart if a sidewalk or a corridor is only four feet wide? What about pressing the button to cross the street or ride the elevator while trying to avoid high-touch areas?

COVID-19 brought lifestyle changes; some architects intend to alter future infrastructure design plans accordingly. Dr. David Rojas, an epidemiologist in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences at Colorado State University, works with policymakers to improve urban design for better health. In COVID-19, he noticed difficulties for people living in areas less accommodating for limited human contact; people faced breaking health guidelines while heading to work, school, or worship. In some cases, fear of COVID-19 caused some to stay home altogether.

No apparent solutions exist. Driving keeps you safe but decreases opportunities to exercise. Biking gets you outside but takes extra time. Bussing might be better for the environment but creates a hardship for those who need the flexibility to take kids to school or make additional trips during the day.

Dr. Rojas wrote, "The decisions we make are dictated by the options we have. How we decide to move, for example, like whether we take a car or walk to work. We need to think about how people experience public spaces differently," Rojas said. "If we have better sidewalks, better connectivity, larger parks that are better designed for everyone, it will be good for chronic diseases, cancer, and many other relevant health outcomes."

With an estimated two-thirds of the world's population living in cities by 2050, altering urban and architectural design for the future requires immediate measures.

"We can do two things: make the same mistake of 'copy and paste' regulations or make a change," Rojas said. "We can work with policymakers to not only impact how our cities are designed now, but also to implement better designs for cities created in the future."

In the wake of the pandemic, urban planners and architects warn that now is the time to change for a better public health future.

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