Public Health: Application and Trends in Landscape Architecture

    Scioto Mile

    Scioto Mile, Columbus, Ohio by MSI/KKG

    The notion of “Public Health” in the past has referred to health, safety and public welfare. The meaning has expanded to achieving health of mind, body and soul. Promoting public health has come to the forefront of societal awareness, so much so that it has even been incorporated into the criteria for landscape architecture projects. Open space recreation systems have emerged throughout the public and private sector, as evidenced by pocket parks, bike trails, walkways, gardens and scenic spots of reflection that have been created in cities, with the idea that these spaces would promote physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

    And in places where there is and has been much development, creating and maintaining these spaces is critical for a city to thrive, according to Ohio landscape architects.

    “Great cities are defined by what degree of balance they achieve among systems that comprise the city, including open spaces,” says Keith Myers, FASLA, principal at MSI/KKG, a landscape architecture firm in Columbus. “ In Europe, there’s always some open space system that emerges, from piazzas in Italy to parks in England and gardens in France. These open spaces have become part of the city’s vocabulary.”

    In the United States, one cannot consider New York City without thinking of the 800-acre Central Park, and similarly, or Chicago without Grant Park. Cities such as these have become defined by their open spaces — free and accessible parks where people can walk, jog, bike, picnic, play sports, walk dogs, roller blade and more outdoors in fresh air. The open space provides a refreshing escape from urban city life, a function that dates back to the industrial age when landscape architects envisioned systems where people could go to clear their lungs from unsanitary city conditions.

    In the past decade, emerging research has spread awareness about the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, leading to programs geared toward combating obesity and promoting sustainable practices to further lessen environmental impact of development through the accepted LEED building standards. Since 2007, the definition of sustainability has been broken down even further by the Sustainable Sites Initiative, a rating system consisting of five components: vegetation, hydrology, soils, materials and human health and well being.

    This is an expected trend, says Jerry Smith, FASLA, owner and principal of Smith/Green Health Consulting and member of the Sustainable Sites Initiative Technical Core Committee and Human Health & Well-being Subcommittee.

    “Human health is at the forefront of our work,” says Smith, who has a background working in health care architecture firms. “We’ve always said a garden is wonderful for its beauty, but research from the last 20 years has brought to light a [health] trend. We’re seeing more community projects encouraging people to get outside, walk more and climb stairs.”

    Adding the health and well being component happened when Smith and his fellow committee members focused on the role health care played in a LEED sustainable rating system.

    “We applied health intent to see if there were health outcomes based on the design of a built environment — in this case, health care facilities,” Smith says. “What we found was that stress is such a prevalent negative factor on health that by providing an open space [for patients] with positive distractions helped relieve stress, shortened length of stay in the hospital and reduced the amount of pain medication required … prevention is the best medicine we can provide.”

    The study also showcased positive outcomes, as well as economic benefits, through the space’s effects on staff.

    “In facilities where gardens are provided for staff, the [employee] retention rate is higher,” Smith says, adding that potential hires also are attracted to the facility because of nicer outdoor environments. “There are fewer medical errors where this exposure to nature and sunlight occurs. And all that pays off in the final ROI [reports] for these facilities.” By providing health gardens and green spaces, it’s a “win-win” situation for both patients and providers.

    And even in a downward facing economy, Smith is optimistic about the present and future of these spaces.

    “There has been more focus on parks than even before.”

    A prime example is in downtown Columbus, the site of the new Scioto Mile. Completed in 2011, the project, which was led by MSI Design, transformed a crumbling riverfront into a revitalized multi-use path and park that welcomes thousands of visitors.

    The large investment made may not yield a large ROI, as the area is free to the public, but Myers says that there are other ways to benefit economically. The Scioto Mile’s restaurant Milestone 229, pays rent to the city, which owns the Mile, and that money is used to help offset maintenance costs. Myers also looks to the growth of the Arena District as an example of how a park has helped an area thrive: simply the presence a proposed two-acre park in MSI’s Arena District Master Plan was attractive to potential tenants, who didn’t hesitate to move in.

    “It drove home the point that even a simple open space can create real economic value,” Myers says.

    Metroparks have also experienced demand, even though grant funding is scarce these days. As Jon Zvanovec, ASLA, landscape architect at Metroparks of the Toledo Area, sees the situation, it’s the budgeting of the past decade that has made activity in open space recreation systems more appealing than ever.

    “People who weren’t previously park users are becoming such — they’re not hopping in their cars, they’re not taking vacations,” he says. Instead, they’re turning to the rail-trail conversions, expanded trails in metroparks nearby, where landscape architects have designed multi-use paths that have become viable circulation routes, allowing users to walk, run and more for miles.