In February 2020, it became apparent that the Covid-19 virus would not remain confined to its origins and was quickly on track to become a global pandemic. Very soon thereafter, the world officially entered pandemic status and since then, the relationships between public health, architecture, and urban design has been increasingly discussed, with an emphasis on understanding of how deeply intertwined they are yet how unmerged they remain in practice.
Historically, architecture and urban design have been known to be used as tools that aided in the segregation and marginalization of many urban landscapes. Amidst the ongoing pandemic, social disparities caused by poor urban planning and design have been painfully obvious as communities of color suffer a disproportionate impact of Covid-19.
In an assessment of Covid-19 hospitalizations by race/ethnicity in 12 states, the American Medical Association found that the percentage of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 who are Black exceeded the percentage of the Black population in all 12 states surveyed over a two-month period ending June 24, 2020, cites the Yale School of Medicine. Additionally, in November 2020, Stanford Medicine researchers found that “Black and Hispanic people made up 58% of all patients hospitalized for COVID-19 and 53% of those who died from the disease.”
In a chat with Charity Ntansah, a Public Health Doctoral candidate, and Ngozi Olojede, a marketing and research specialist at a leading architectural firm, we delve into the importance of diverse representation at design firms and in roles that govern health policies.
Ntansah, who grew up on the south side of Syracuse, NY– a predominantly black community– was inspired to enter into public health as a result of the lack of resources she witnessed in her community. “We didn’t have grocery stores but yet we had fast food restaurants on every corner,” Ntansah explains. “We had the community store selling liquor but no fresh food. I’m pretty sure there was a sewage site near the bus station.”
During her undergraduate education in Public Health and after, working in both private and government agencies, she recalls how her work hardly interfaced with architects, urban designers, and planners. In fact, Ntansah can only recall a single encounter with an urban planner and after chatting, she realized that their objectives–which seek to make people healthy and happy in their environments– were quite similar. Ntansah suggests that educational institutions should encourage interdisciplinary study between public health and urban planning/design, which may ultimately lead to more collaborations and partnerships on public projects.
While some cities are working toward improving their built environments, and social justice advocates are working to increase things like access among marginalized groups to healthy food, change isn’t happening quick enough. In “How Good Design Can Improve Public Health,” author Claudia Carol writes:
“By the year 2050, a staggering 70 percent of the planet’s population will live in urban areas. That rate of change holds significant ramifications, not the least of which is that Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) are the leading cause of death globally and will be proportionately represented in growing cities.” She continues, “a strong relationship exists between the design of the built urban environment and public well-being.” With this in mind, critical questions surrounding the built environment and how they serve their audiences need to be considered, especially moving into a post-pandemic society.
“You have to think about who you are designing for,” says Olojede. “How is beauty defined in that space? How are people going to feel and navigate in that space? Who is going to see themselves in that space and feel welcomed?” These crucial questions, along with questions on socioeconomics, public health, accessibility, and sustainability, are the gateway into designing with intention to create healthy spaces that audiences will respond to.
Beyond the built environment, communication tools and policies also have an effect on the wellbeing of people and here again design plays a key role in dissemination of information to the general public. Ntansah points to a “lack of representation” in design and even certain sectors of public health. Conducting formative research by garnering community feedback that is ultimately incorporated into design not only ensures that public spaces are inviting, healing, and engaging, but also encourages and promotes the black aesthetic.
Professionals like Ntansah and Olojede who have traveled and worked in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa, can channel those experiences into inspiration for designing western spaces populated by people of color, while considering important design elements that influence health like natural light availability, types of materials employed, off-gassing, indoor air quality, and more.
Even those who haven’t ventured into other countries or regions can choose to amplify the voices of color in the communities they seek to serve. Per Olojede, design and urban planning isn’t solely about finding solutions to existing problems but also includes unearthing answers that may already exist in spaces.
“The mistake of human beings and a reason for why we are where we are right now, in terms of climate change, is that we forgot that we are a part of nature and that nature is not just a resource for our disposal,” declares Olojede.
Listen to the conversation in its entirety for more insight around public health and representation in design.