Healthy Community Planning Means Healthier Neighbors

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA, president of the American Institute of Architects



by: Helene Combs Dreiling

One of the best examples of this effort‚ÄĒeven amidst bankruptcy and a historic unraveling of a once-dominant American city‚ÄĒis the¬†Detroit Collaborative Design Center¬†(DCDC), a nonprofit architecture and urban design firm that offers proof that neighborhoods that facilitate holistic wellness and preventative care are as valuable as doctors who make house calls.

What began as an effort to encourage healthy living surrounding a new health care center morphed into a 40- to 50-year plan for an entire neighborhood in southwest Detroit built around the idea of wellness. The center,¬†5716 Wellness, is housed in a historic Albert Kahn‚Äďdesigned cigar factory, and was redeveloped and designed by local nonprofit¬†Southwest Solutions¬†in partnership with¬†Covenant Community Care.The new center embodies health and wellness in its most direct form, providing medical, pediatric, obstetric, dental, psychiatric, pharmacy, and behavioral counseling services to primarily low-income clients, who often lack insurance. While it serves the medical needs of 8,000 to 10,000 patients each year, little was being done at first outside the facility to encourage a healthy lifestyle before or after treatment. Though architecture can inspire healthy choices within its walls, the two organizations soon realized that to truly foster better health, a wellness initiative would have to take shape on an urban planning scale.They reached out to the DCDC design firm, affiliated with the University Of Detroit Mercy School Of Architecture. Their Wellness Center Campus Strategy span would begin transforming southwest Detroit into a picture of better health‚ÄĒbut first they had to determine what that picture would look like.By talking to residents, business owners, and community organizations, DCDC discovered that a lack of access to healthy food options was a great barrier to wellness. In the city, increased urban agriculture was making local produce more available, but connecting local growers with communities that needed the food most remained difficult. To help bridge this divide, the center is taking advantage of almost 1,000 urban farms in Detroit, creating satellite branches of well-known¬†markets and integrating walking paths and bike lanes throughout southwest Detroit for greater city access. These small but significant design changes are making physical activity easier and healthy lifestyles more accessible on a daily basis to residents.

Urban neighborhood wellness may sound complex, but intentional design choices to promote the ongoing wellness of a community before they have to come into a health clinic is crucial to rethinking preventive health. Working with architects who are able to integrate design thinking into community planning turns small choices into long-lasting health outcomes.

The American Public Health Association annual meeting, took¬†place ¬†in New Orleans, which had¬†as its theme ‚ÄúHealthography: How Where You Live Affects Your Health and Well-Being.‚ÄĚ