12 Principles for Designing Healthy Communities

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The design of our roads, shopping areas, local playgrounds, and other public spaces plays a significant role in all aspects of our health—physical, mental, and social. America’s auto-centric sprawl has played a role in our current national health crisis, and this understanding has created a renewed focus on public spaces and community design. Public officials and decision makers are now starting to consider health when making transportation and land-use decisions.

Dan Burden, America’s foremost walkability expert, leads our Blue Zones built environment team.  We use decades of evidence-based experience and research to help improve and transform the street life in cities across the country and in Blue Zones Project communities.

Burden recommends these general guiding concepts, principles and patterns for designing and building model healthy communities. These concepts and principles apply to communities large and small, new and old, and influence both individual and community health. All face similar challenges, but often of different orders of magnitude and resources available. These principles and processes are flexible; they can be adapted depending on scale and context of each project.

1 People First Design

People, human-scale and quality-of-life trump speed and efficiency of autos. Designs and features of well-planned districts accommodate cars, but give greatest support and incentive to people on foot. Pedestrians receive highest support, followed by transit, bikes, freight, and then cars.

2 Active Transportation is the Natural Choice

Walking and active movement are not only the natural choice, but the unavoidable choice. People walk and are active a minimum of one-hour per day, by design.

3 High Bump-into-it-iveness

Mentally, emotionally and socially healthy people require full lives of rich and dynamic engagement. A diversity of people live at this location (diverse in lifestyle, economic and social levels). Bumping into others happens naturally, through design of streets, open buildings and beautiful public spaces. Each building, block, park, other element or system creates natural engagement.

4 Social Engagement is Easy

Layout and design of buildings and open spaces maximizes easy and natural mixing of people. No individual living in the community needs to walk more than 1,000 feet to engage others in a public setting.

5 Green Design Enhances Everyday Life

The built environment is in harmony with the natural environment by featuring biophillic designs.  To the maximum extent possible, all people are surrounded by green environments, where they live, shop, work and play; and people do not have to walk more than 1,000 feet to find a public gathering place. Trees and other natural elements are dominant features of all landscapes, helping address multiple needs of local aesthetics, environmental health, air quality and climatic (summer/winter) variations.

6 Auto-Dependency is Reduced

Auto-Dependency is low to non-existent for many.  Incentives for driving are no longer dictating the architecture and placement of buildings. Parking is un-bundled, metered and managed. Ideally, parking is placed at the edges, and most people enjoy walking to their vehicles as part of their more active lifestyles.

7 Transit is Easy, Convenient and Comfortable

A variety of transit options and desirable walking routes to transit are featured. Options might include trolleys, trams, buses and water taxis.  Intermodal stations are convenient, welcoming, comfortable and well connected. Transit is not just competitive to other modes, it makes possible, efficient, comfortable and enjoyable movement.

8 Pavement is Minimized

Use of non-porous materials in streets, parking lots and other features is minimized. Potential water and pollution runoff, solar heat traps and auto-centric designs are minimized. Sustainable cities attracting the greatest number of new jobs, such as Seattle, now have an active “pavement to parks” program.

9 Paths and Walkways

Paths (and low-volume streets) lead to activity centers, transit stops and other places of reward. Alignment of streets celebrates landmark places (natural and man-made). Individuals find it comfortable, easy, rewarding and memorable to walk, bike and travel to featured landmarks.

10 Open Space

To the maximum extent feasible use nature to define districts.

“Cities should not contain parks; parks should contain cities.” – Frederick Law Olmsted

11 Recreational Experiences can Happen Naturally

Places for play and social exchange are convenient, but natural play, rich in discovery, is also featured in streetscapes, parks, along trails or in plazas. Organized sports are accessible by trails and placed on perimeters, so these organized play fields do not overly-consume precious land and resources. Parking is on-street, not in the park.

12 Community Streets

Use transportation to build the community, not divide it. Build streets to add value and livability to adjacent properties. The first priority of commercial streets is to maximize retail and social exchange.

(Related Read: Built Environment Impact on Public Health)

Example of a Blue Zones street transformation in Fort Worth, TX.