History shows how the challenges of health and illness influence the built environment and the way we subsequently design and construct the world around us.
Given the similarities between pandemics of the past, UniSA architecture researcher Dr Julie Collins says there are lessons to be learned from historical health buildings; the philosophies, and circumstances that influenced their design.
“Our built environments have always responded directly to the challenges of illness and disease... [and] there is every reason to believe this pattern will continue,” Collins said.
“For example, following the rapid urbanisation of the population during the Industrial Revolution, we began building city parks, both as ‘urban lungs’, but also through the recognition that mental health was aided through exposure to nature and exercise and social interaction.
“Also, the modernist movement in architecture and design—the clean lines, open spaces, minimalist styles—developed as an extension to the principals of hygiene and sanitation that guided early hospitals and public health buildings.
“When you look at health crises like the tuberculosis pandemic in the 1800s, before we had pharmaceuticals and biomedicine, really ‘place’ was one of the only ways we could prevent and counter the spread of communicable diseases,” Collins said.
While guided by the best medical science of that time, Collins says the approach was to isolate ill people in dedicated sanatoria that provided fresh air, good nutrition, rest and exercise under medical supervision.
“Then when we developed pharmaceuticals—these kinds of ‘magic bullet’ cures—a lot of those ideas fell by the wayside, which is a pity, because as we can see now, they are still relevant to the isolation principles we’re falling back on.”
It's these health-conscious design principles of the past, which might seem simple and obvious today, that Collins says have fallen out of practice.
“The architects of these places realised the importance of ventilation, windows that could be opened to allow fresh air and natural light,” Collins said.
“I think, in particular, if you look at some of the designs we now use in our workplaces—such as offices and manufacturing—then a lot of our contemporary designs have neglected ventilation, access to sunlight and access to nature.”
How we plan and develop urban areas, infrastructure and respond to the needs of growing populations are factors determining the long-term prosperity of cities and people, a recent report from the United Nations shows.
The UN’s latest sustainable development goals report found that more than 90 per cent of Covid-19 cases occur in urban areas, with the pandemic a reminder of how urban design and planning can influence our health—and not just in terms of communicable diseases, such as Covid-19.
In May, the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning in conjunction with the Centre for Public Health at the Queen’s University of Belfast, was awarded $1.2 million in funding by the Australian and UK governments towards research on the impact of urban design on health.
“Our overarching aim is to generate evidence and tools to support the urban planning and health sectors to better understand how to design our cities to prevent non-communicable diseases,” the Australian team’s chief investigator Dr Jason Thompson said.
The research project is focused on new methods in computer vision and artificial intelligence exploring the relationship between urban design and non-communicable diseases—such as cancer, respiratory conditions and heart disease—in cities across Australia and the United Kingdom.
“Urban design has an enormous impact on community health,” Thompson said.
“Non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, type II diabetes mellitus, chronic respiratory conditions like asthma, and poor mental health, are some of the most common causes of death in the UK and Australia.
“The design of our cities plays an important role in preventing these chronic diseases and has a consequent impact on the quality of life and life expectancy of their citizens.”
The research project, A vision of healthy urban design for Non-communicable diseases prevention, is expected to be completed in mid-2023.