What Is Community Design? How to Build a Healthy Community

Community members teach children about gardening at a community garden.

The places where we live, work and play affect our well-being. Careful planning and design of these places can help improve the welfare and quality of life of the people who use them.

What is community design? By considering the perspectives and requirements of all members of a community, community design aims to ensure that everyone can easily and fairly access the resources they need to live a healthy life.

Illnesses can be linked to our surroundings. Air pollution causes 6.7 million deaths yearly, with 5.7 million resulting from noncommunicable diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and heart disease, according to the World Health Organization.

Furthermore, the environment can affect people’s mental health. The American Psychiatric Association reports that many of the effects of climate change can lead to problems such as stroke and dementia.

Since the environment plays such a significant role in the health of individuals and communities, public health professionals should know what community design is, its importance and advantages, and the elements that make communities healthy.

Community Design Definition

The goal of community design is to create healthy and inclusive living spaces for all community members. Knowing what community design is means understanding how it works.

Community design works through collaboration. Community planners, architects, local government leaders and community members work together in a systematic and strategic process to achieve the following:

  • Understanding the community’s needs and challenges
  • Gaining insight into what individuals in the community value most
  • Listening to the diverse perspectives of the people who actually live in the community
  • Making decisions together on what to build in the community and how to shape its environment

Community design allows for changes that improve the health of neighborhoods and regions, benefiting everyone equally.

Why Are Healthy Communities Important?

A healthy community can improve its members’ lives in many ways. For example, a healthy community provides access to various amenities, such as parks, sidewalks, bike lanes and public transportation, that encourage people to participate in physical and recreational activities and enable people to safely go where they need to go.

Another characteristic of a healthy community is access to healthy food. Healthy food promotes good health and well-being. But in many areas across the U.S., especially underserved areas, people have few options when it comes to buying fresh and healthy food. These places are known as food deserts. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), living in a food desert can lead to diet-related diseases like obesity and diabetes.

In 2021, about 10.2 percent of U.S. households lacked enough food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Poverty contributes to food insecurity. USDA data shows that 32.1 percent of low-income households do not have enough food. Apart from poverty, race and ethnicity play a role: Food insecurity rates are higher in Black American and Hispanic American households compared to the national average.

Community design can be used to reduce food deserts by helping to identify locations for new grocery stores and expanding public transit to enable residents to travel short distances to access nutritious food resources.

10 Characteristics of Healthy Communities

Every community is unique. People from one neighborhood may have different needs from people in another. But all healthy communities share certain general characteristics. Here are 10 of them:

1. Built to Human Scale

With a focus on people, community design encourages building on a human scale. When communities are designed for people, buildings are closer together and easier to access. For example, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods allow people to safely go where they need to go. In another example, a retail block with several stores gives people more options within reach.

2. Equitable and Inclusive Access

What is community design’s value when equitable and inclusive access to places and resources is prioritized? Community members in vulnerable groups can meet their needs and preferences as easily as everyone else. This helps create a community where everyone is included and valued, bringing people together and promoting economic success.

3. Mobility and Transportation Options

Accessible transportation options, like well-designed public transportation systems, help community members, even those with mobility challenges, easily access services and be active in their communities. Transportation accessibility also helps reduce traffic congestion and vehicular carbon emissions, resulting in less pollution. Mobility options such as bike paths encourage physical activity to improve health outcomes.

4. Opportunities for Active and Healthy Living

The way communities are designed affects residents’ health. When communities are built to encourage exercise and socializing, residents’ physical and mental health are likely to improve. Furthermore, children and adults with respiratory issues, like asthma, can be more active in areas with cleaner air.

5. Places to Congregate

Healthy communities provide places for people to gather, from parks and walking trails to community centers and libraries. These places offer a variety of activities and options. More choices make a neighborhood more interesting. Community members can enjoy indoor or outdoor spaces, which can boost their energy and spirit.

6. Detail and Variety

Communities are more vibrant when their public spaces feature detail and variety in their design and layout. Murals on walls and sidewalks encompassing brick walkways and inviting seating can make spaces livelier and more compelling. Other examples include buildings with a range of textures and colors, and businesses that add visual appeal by updating their storefront displays regularly. Rotating outdoor pop-up events also add interest to an area.

7. Functionality and Aesthetics

The buildings and public spaces in healthy communities serve their purpose. This means people are able to move freely and efficiently in their neighborhoods, whether it’s for work or shopping. Function and appearance are connected — a practical space can also look nice, and a beautiful space can also serve a purpose. Examples include wide sidewalks, spaces between buildings and well-lit streets.

8. Inclusive of Divergent Voices

Residents, organizations, local government officials and other stakeholders all participate in healthy communities. Designing for all members of the community is crucial, including for vulnerable community members who are often ignored. Projects that involve many different voices are more likely to address community inequities and benefit everyone.

9. Comfortable and Safe

A pleasant and healthy community feels safe and comfortable. The way it’s laid out, how many people live there and how easy it is to get around all play a part in this. To make spaces comfortable and safe, communities use strategies such as lowering speed limits, adding lighting and making it easier for all people to move throughout the neighborhood.

10. Proximity to Natural Settings

Green spaces are an essential component of healthy community design. They provide access to nature, recreation and relaxation for residents. They also can have positive effects on residents’ mental health by lowering their stress and improving their overall well-being. Green spaces include parks, gardens and natural areas that offer diverse ecological and social benefits.

Empower Communities With Resilient, Healthy and Equitable Spaces

Healthy communities are good for the economy and for residents’ health. They also encourage people to stay active and eat well, which can help them prevent disease and improve their quality of life, reducing their health care expenses.

Healthy communities are important because they let people shape their neighborhood and have a say. Community design gives people a voice and makes things fair. It helps them feel like they belong and have ownership. This can bring people in a community together and get them more involved.

With a curriculum that mixes asynchronous coursework in public health and hands-on fieldwork, Augusta University Online’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program helps prepare students to uncover transformative solutions and community-centric strategies to help build more equitable communities for all.

Learn more about Augusta’s MPH program.

Recommended Readings
7 Health Informatics Careers for Master of Public Health Graduates
Environmental Scientist: Salary, Job Description and Requirements
Biostatistics vs. Epidemiology: Key Topics in Public Health

American Planning Association, “Healthy Communities Policy Guide”
American Psychiatric Association, Climate Change and Mental Health Connections
American Public Health Association, Healthy Community Design
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Healthy Food Environments: Improving Access to Healthier Food
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Land Use and Community Design
ChangeLab Solutions, What Are Complete Streets?
Community Design Fort Worth, What Is Community Design?
Diverse Health Hub, “Designing Sustainable and Healthy Communities”
Forbes, “What Is Community Design and How Can It Build Brave Spaces With Heart”
Granicus, “What Is Community Engagement?”
Institute for Local Government, “Community Design”
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Life Expectancy: Could Where You Live Influence How Long You Live?
Smart Growth America, “Shared Spaces and Health Equity”
USDA Economic Research Service, Food Security and Nutrition Assistance
Wisconsin Economic Development, “Top 10 Characteristics of a Thriving Downtown”
World Health Organization, Noncommunicable Diseases

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