COVID-19 is forcing us to see our homes, neighborhoods and our built environment in a new light. We know that COVID hospitalization and death risks are highly correlated with where we live and the corresponding socioeconomic conditions. Our homes may normally be sanctuaries where we can relax, sleep or entertain, but now they have also become our primary places of work, study, play, exercise, creativity and caring for others.
While many people are now waking up to the idea that our built environment can impact our health, this concept is not new. Long before the pandemic, research on the determinants of health indicates that external and environmental factors (not genetics) may be responsible for 80–90% of our disease risks and health outcomes. In the GWI research report Build Well To Live Well, the authors articulate the strong wellness case for a healthy built environment and wellness real estate. A wellness-focused built environment can benefit our health and wellbeing in many ways.
Minimize the environmental impacts on human health. Human activities have generated pollution in our environment that adversely affects our health. Wellness real estate and communities can help to mitigate these harmful impacts in important ways:
- Reduce our exposure to toxic elements by filtering out pollutants in our air and water and by minimizing the use of harmful materials and substances in our homes (e.g., in paints, sealants, flooring, flame retardants and insulation).
- Promote better sleep, rest and stress reduction through healthy lighting and soundproofing.
- Reap the benefits of earth-friendly practices while doing our part to support a sustainable planet. These practices may range from using locally sourced, recycled, natural or sustainable building materials to installing geothermal heating/cooling, and from promoting native plant landscaping to refraining from using chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the community.
Support behavior change and healthier lifestyles. No one would dispute that healthy behaviors and lifestyles have a profound impact on our health. Yet, habits are difficult to change. Fortunately, psychology shows that changing our living environment can help to nudge us toward healthy behaviors. Here are some examples:
- Encourage healthy eating habits by providing easy access to fresh and healthy foods through community-sponsored agriculture (CSAs), community/backyard gardens, urban farms, and farmer’s markets. In addition, providing drinking fountains and bottle-refilling stations in public places encourages drinking water instead of sugared beverages.
- Turn movement into the default option throughout infrastructure and neighborhood design that makes walking, biking, or taking public transit more pleasant and more convenient (e.g., attractive sidewalks, street trees, benches, bikes lanes/parking). Inside buildings, attractive and well-located stairways steer people away from elevators.
- Promote an active lifestyle and mind-body health by making extensive wellness amenities affordable and accessible to people of all ages and income levels—from walking trails and bike paths to playgrounds and pocket parks, from fitness centers and sports/recreational facilities to classes and programming.
- Take advantage of nature’s power to improve mental and psychological wellbeing through biophilic design and ample access to green/open space. These features boost our cognitive abilities and moods; promote healing; and reduce stress, aggression and negative feelings.
Foster a sense of place, community and belonging. A home is more than a dwelling. Wellness real estate can foster wellness communities that combat the loneliness epidemic and enhance our positive feelings of place and belonging.
- Design that encourages social encounters helps to create a sense of community. Many planning, zoning and design elements—such as mixed-used spaces, housing diversity, higher density, limited street setbacks, strategically located parking and public transit, walkable schools and community amenities, public plazas and parks, and porches and balconies—have been demonstrated to encourage more pedestrian and street activities, public gathering of people, spontaneous meeting of neighbors, and general social interactions.
- Design can also increase social trust and civic engagement. A community is only as strong as the engagement of its members and the trust that people place in each other. Studies have shown that community interaction builds trust among neighbors and encourages civic engagement. Studies have also shown that social trust increases with walkability and access to nature and well-maintained public and recreational spaces.
See the GWI report Build Well to Live Well: Wellness Lifestyle Real Estate and Communities for more information on the critical role the built environment plays in supporting our health and wellness.