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Seeking better health through a rethinking of our urban landscape

City leaders in Minnesota and across the nation are rethinking the future of the urban landscape, with an eye toward creating healthier environments.

William Gladstone, long-serving prime minister of England, is reported to have said, “In the health of the people, lies the strength of the nation.”

Kathryn Correia

By this measure, America is quite vulnerable. It is faced with a potentially devastating health crisis evidenced by growing rates of heart disease, diabetes, childhood asthma and obesity, and the effects of social isolation.

Many of these ills have been brought on by the unintended consequence of public policy and investment heavily biased toward the automobile, coupled with outdated zoning and building codes. The result has been cities that do not encourage healthy behaviors or, worse, provide incentives for unhealthy behavior.

Rethinking to create healthier environments

Fortunately, city leaders in Minnesota and across the nation are rethinking the future of the urban landscape, with an eye toward creating healthier environments. In health care, that means looking outside the walls of hospitals and clinics to collaborate with community leaders on opportunities to improve health where we live, learn, work, worship and play.

Patrick Seeb

Cities have redeveloped themselves to support health before. More than a hundred years ago, epidemics of cholera, typhoid, diphtheria, tuberculosis and the like were rampant. It took a concerted effort, often championed by public health professionals and architects, to mitigate this crisis. Within a few short decades new sewage and water systems, stricter air pollution control standards, and improvements to building stock drastically improved the health conditions of our cities.

In St. Paul, Dr. Justus Ohage was a leader in the movement to transform cities from places of disease and despair into places of health and hope. Ohage, a skilled surgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital and St. Paul’s health commissioner, used his own resources to purchase a piece of land in the middle of the Mississippi River where he built bathhouses and swimming beaches.  Harriet Island became a destination for all citizens to “enjoy fresh air, clean water, and public hygiene.” 

Today’s city builders can stand on the shoulders of people like Ohage and confidently face the task before them: building a stronger nation by encouraging better health.

This has been the subject of the 4th Annual Placemaking Residency: Moving the Twin Cities to Better Health this week. Experts from across the country have come together with policymakers, practitioners and concerned citizens for a week of workshops, walking tours, study groups, presentations, and demonstration projects exploring new ways of working together to build a better future for our community.

Critical questions

Participants are exploring critical questions like: How do we measure the impact on a city’s economy if more resources are invested in walking and biking infrastructure? What role does affordable housing play in supporting greater health stability for its residents? How does the natural environment contribute to better health outcomes?

How do we disrupt patterns that have led to distinctly poorer health outcomes for people from some neighborhoods when compared to others? What design and policy decisions have resulted in food deserts? What are the best examples of multigenerational play and recreation areas and what can we do to create more of these?

With these questions, we hope the Twin Cities will continue to lead the nation as we turn to building cities that drive us to healthier, more productive, more prosperous lives.

Kathryn Correia is the president and CEO of HealthEast; Patrick Seeb is the executive director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation.

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