Building a Culture of Health

The relationship between the built environment and well-being 

There is a shift happening in the world of public health that is expanding the focus from prevention and care to a more holistic view that includes understanding the conditions of people’s daily experience. Recently, I presented findings from the Public Life in NYC’s Plazas project at the Culture of Health conference hosted by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Panel focused on ‘Built America’ and how the physical environments we inhabit impact individual well-being and the health of communities.

Gehl Institute has been exploring social impacts over the last twelve months through the development of the Public Life Diversity Toolkit and a research collaboration with JMBC to understand the public life and urban justice of seven NYC plazas. We are very interested in developing stronger tools that can convey impacts of the physical environment surrounding us on our mental, social, and physical health. 

The research was well received, but interestingly the discussion that followed focused on the research methods. The attendees were excited about the power of actionable-data to drive future research and investment. This research studied NYC Department of Transportation’s urban interventions that create interim plazas at underused traffic intersections. Urban Interventions involve implementing a quick and visible change to the built environment. Physical changes at a 1:1 scale leads to people changing their behavior, actions, and even perceptions.  This research aimed to measure the users’ change in behavior. We hope that future research will help delineate what characteristics of public spaces maximize activity and social connections.


The following conclusions were presented:

  • Early research indicates that local public spaces increase activity and social connections
  • There is a disproportionate impact of the investment on lower socioeconomic groups and ethnic minorities

  • This emerging model suggests that city design can play a significant role in population health

This research is a step toward demonstrating the potential impact of the built environment on social, mental, and physical health but, it also surfaces many research questions for future work:

  • What is the extent of impact on population health? For example, can we quantify a return on investment through the savings on health-care services and sick days from work?
  • Does the increased engagement of lower socioeconomic groups when public spaces are available contribute to upward economic mobility?

The research pertaining to the built environment’s impacts on the mental, social, and physical health of communities is just beginning. When inequity is a growing issue for urban environments across the country, it is inspiring to think that access to quality public space in local communities can address some of the health disparities cities are facing.