The Connection Between Community Design and Healthy Living

By Michele L. Van Hyfte – April 2, 2012
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

Healthy living can be attributed to many aspects of a person’s life. If you make a list of all the contributing factors in your life, you may begin with a nutritious, low-fat diet and regular exercise. You may also include living in a healthy house that was built with green building materials and cleaned with non-toxic products. But would you include living in a healthy community? When you step outside your door, does your community encourage a healthy or unhealthy lifestyle? Is your community an enabler of good habits or bad habits? Just as you critically analyze the nutritional value or number of calories in your food or the toxicity of the cleaning products you use in your home, take a look at your community to see how it is affecting your health. Consider the design of your community. A community is made of a designed, built environment that overlays the natural environment. The resulting fabric of roads, buildings, and infrastructure determines where you live, work, and play, and how you get from place to place. As obesity and health issues related to sedentary lifestyles are dramatically increasing, communities are now more than ever making the connection between urban design and public health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has taken notice of the issue with its Healthy Community Design Initiative. It works to improve public health by linking community design with public health monitoring, educating decision-makers, conducting research, and identifying best practices. The Initiative states that “healthy community design can improve people’s health by increasing physical activity, reducing injury, increasing access to healthy food, improving air and water quality, minimizing the effects of climate change, decreasing mental health stresses, strengthening the social fabric of a community and providing fair access to livelihood, education, and resources.” Their Talking Points on Community Design and Healthy Living note that community design (including homes, schools, workplaces, streets and transportation systems) can have major effects on the physical and mental health of its residents (for example, a lack of accessible sidewalks and bicycle or walking paths can contribute to sedentary habits). For more information on the CDC’s Healthy Community Design Initiative, go to

Healthy communities, also known as sustainable communities, successfully integrate land use, transportation, and streetscape design. They are walkable and bikeable; in other words, they provide safe streets and trails designed for pedestrians and cyclists to use as a means for accessing the everyday services you need within a reasonable distance of your home. Grocery stores, schools, employers, and recreational areas are connected to housing areas by low-speed streets with wide, shaded sidewalks and are located within a 20-minute walk, a design metric used for healthy communities. Having the ability to walk to some of the places you frequent on a safe, attractive street will keep you moving on foot and keep you out of the car. This not only keeps you healthier, but it keeps the air you breathe cleaner too. Having the ability to walk to a park, greenbelt, or recreational area will increase your level of fitness and the time you spend there. Think about how walkable and bikeable your neighborhood is and how it could be made better.

Austin certainly has healthy community “street cred,” often topping the “Best Place to…” lists. Austin is known as a fit city, a beautiful city, and a sustainable city, but with a population that doubles every 20 years and an aging transportation and utility infrastructure, keeping Austin weird and sustainable will require some careful planning and good design. Austin is currently crafting a new comprehensive plan, called “Imagine Austin,” that defines a vision and framework for how we want the city to grow and develop. Healthy community ideas are reflected in its core principles, which are as follows: grow as a compact, connected city; integrate nature into the city; and develop as an affordable and healthy community. The plan challenges the past methods of sprawling, low-density development and offers a fresh formula for long-term sustainability through compact growth that focuses on redevelopment and infill development (reuse and repositioning of obsolete or underutilized urban buildings or sites) while preserving and enhancing natural open space. Infill development capitalizes on existing infrastructure and minimizes development costs. Connecting greenways and waterways creates a green infrastructure system of outdoor places for recreation and environmental protection. Diverse neighborhoods with attainably-priced housing, access to shopping, services, mass transit and job centers provide residents with choices about how they get from place to place, enabling a healthier lifestyle. For more information on Imagine Austin, go to

One of the best examples of sustainable community planning in Austin is taking shape at Mueller, the redevelopment of the 700-acre site of the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. Mueller’s design encourages people to move among outdoor spaces. Its master plan includes a pattern of pedestrian-friendly streets connected to open spaces creating a walkable, bike-friendly network. The streets are designed to distribute traffic effectively and reduce impact on surrounding neighborhoods. Homes are designed to engage the sidewalks with front porches that encourage socializing and spending time outdoors. For more information on Mueller, go to

On a smaller scale are future plans for Waller Creek, which include the revitalization of a neglected portion of downtown that has the potential to become a unique, urban recreational area that supports economic development. A flood control tunnel project currently under construction will remove the threat of flooding, restore the ecology of the creek, and allow for the improvement of adjacent parks and open spaces. The future design of the Waller Creek area will provide a safer, healthier creek that will boost redevelopment and improve pedestrian and bicycle connections between Lady Bird Lake, the University of Texas, and East Austin. The Waller Creek Conservancy is currently sponsoring “Design Waller Creek – A Competition,” which challenges design teams to present their ideas for remaking a currently fragmented and undervalued section of Austin into a vibrant, livable, workable district. For more information about the Waller Creek Conservancy, go to

Urban planning and “place making” efforts like these create the physical framework for a healthy community. We all deserve neighborhoods and cities that provide us with a well-planned, built environment that sustainably supports a clean, natural environment, enabling us all to live more healthy lives. afm

Michele L. Van Hyfte, AIA LEED BD+C, is a Registered Architect and a LEED Accredited Professional who has lived in Austin for 17 years with her husband, Eric Van Hyfte. In 2004, she founded Monarch Design/Consulting, a professional design and consulting firm that provides sustainable design expertise to the architecture and construction industries for the achievement of healthy, high-performance buildings. Van Hyfte currently serves on several boards and councils, and she has received service awards from numerous professional organizations. Her speaking engagements include local, state, and national conferences, the Texas State Legislature and the University of Texas School of Architecture. Van Hyfte enjoys walking, running and biking in central Austin’s parks and trails.



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