Health, Equity, and Public Space

A new research project sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

It’s well-known that social networks are a major driver of wellness. Less recognized, however, is the role that public spaces play in forging those social connections. Research shows that our common spaces have the potential to strengthen community bonds and expose people to difference, and that even indirect passive social interactions can foster a sense of belonging. It’s little surprise then that zip codes in which neighbors live closer together often have higher rates of civic engagement and tolerance for difference.

What all of this suggests is that our ability to gather and spend time together in public strongly influences the vital social conditions central to building healthy communities.

Yet designing truly inclusive public spaces—spaces that foster the health of all people—is no easy task. A new park or street design may drive up property values and drive out longtime residents of a community. Efforts to solicit feedback from the community do not always generate the diversity of input that planners and designers need. More crucially, the work of such practitioners rarely addresses the specific structural and cultural inequities that have caused deep-rooted barriers to health: racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia, among many others.

For example, during the Interstate Highway era of the United States, highway infrastructure required the use of eminent domain in thousands of neighborhoods across the country. Poor and black communities experienced a disproportionate amount of land seizure compared to wealthier and white ones, creating neighborhoods with highways running through them and further isolating people from opportunities. As we develop and redesign public spaces, we must grapple with these histories of exclusion in forward-looking ways. Together, we can make the shared public spaces in our cities more welcoming to everyone, regardless of who you are, where you live in the community, or how much you make.

That is why we are thrilled to announce a new effort supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to better understand how public spaces can make communities healthier and more welcoming for all.

The inclusive healthy placemaking project aims to be an ongoing collective learning experience. Working with an expanding group of researchers and practitioners alongside Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we will identify the forces and obstacles for improving health and equity in public spaces. Our definition of inclusive healthy placemaking, as well as the methods through which we measure it, will evolve as the project progresses.

We will be looking at global practices and learn from cultures where health outcomes are front and center, such as South Asian cultures where “health is wealth” to Nordic regions where health is a basic right. Though every culture has its own biases, looking across the globe will unveil a greater number of potential applications for the United States. Throughout the project, we will engage and grow the network of the many researchers and practitioners already working to make public spaces more inclusive and healthy, both to learn from them and to inform activity in the field.

We’re excited about what we are going to discover together, though we may make mistakes and encounter some dead-ends along the way. Whether you are a community member, researcher, practitioner, policy maker, social justice advocate, or a steward of public space, we invite you to join us on our journey and write to us at admin (at) gehlinstitute.org to share what you’ve been doing to make our world a more equitable and healthier place.