Why you should care

Because your home and office could be making you fat. 

Aria Apartments in Denver is a new kind of affordable housing project. And if “affordable housing” brings to mind dimly lit, dilapidated high-rises, then tweak the mental picture and visualize a project that consists of 72 two-story walk-ups paired with 13 market-rate town houses, all of them brightly colored and spacious with a sleek, modern design. A daylit fitness room in the on-site community center looks out onto a grassy walkway where residents sit, stroll and play. Renters and owners alike can plant and pick their own produce at the 1-acre garden or buy it at a pay-what-you-can food stand. On the ground floor of each unit is bike storage, which gives residents the affordable and calorie-burning option of cycling to school or work.

Every aspect of the project, which was completed in 2013 by New York–based Jonathan Rose Cos., was meticulously planned to follow recommendations from the Center for Active Design (CfAD), a nonprofit organization that has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to tackle the growing obesity epidemic in the United States. This latest strategy is called behavioral, or active, design, in which architects use the CDC’s research to create workspaces and low-income housing that promote healthier diets and lifestyle.

The building in which you and your family live is the cornerstone, not just for your financial stability but for your health as well.…

Bob Simpson, vice president of affordable and green financing, Fannie Mae

Improvements in this sector of public health can’t come fast enough, experts tell OZY. Some 75 percent of the nation’s adults battle obesity and its related ailments like heart disease, respiratory problems and diabetes, according to the CDC. And this epidemic disproportionately afflicts low-income and minority communities, where it’s often difficult to find safe playgrounds and recreation spaces, or supermarkets stocked with nutritious food. Overall, full-time workers in the U.S. with chronic health conditions miss an estimated 450 million days of work each year, which annually results in more than $153 billion in lost productivity, according to a 2011 Gallup Poll.

Enter behavioral design. The idea comes from a psychological concept called “nudge theory” — in this case, encouraging people to make quick decisions that are beneficial to their health. For example, people usually make the default decision to take the elevator because of its central location in most buildings. In active design, center stage goes to well-lit stairways, and it’s the elevators that are semi-hidden. Active-design workspaces feature standing or treadmill desks instead of cubicles, and the entrances of some affordable housing projects are located at least a half-mile from public transit stops to encourage walking.

The overall concept is to “link affordable housing, healthy living, health care, education, job training, connectivity and transit,” says Chuck Perry, a partner at Perry Rose, the Denver office of Jonathan Rose Cos. “Aria Apartment residents are very actively involved, and these programs have improved the residents’ health and the overall sense of well-being and community.” It’s too early for hard data as to whether Aria and similar housing boost metrics for good health, but experts in the field have long confirmed that active lifestyles and healthy diets reduce chronic diseases.

Opening a second front in the war on obesity, the CDC has partnered with the General Services Administration as well as the CfAD to develop Fitwel, a building certification program that focuses on human health. “Fitwel is seeking to make the healthy choice the easy choice through widespread adoption of behavioral design strategies backed by science,” says Joanna Frank, president and CEO of CfAD. The Fitwel checklist includes 63 strategies based on the CDC’s analysis of more than 3,000 academic studies. Some of the boxes architects and designers need to check off to earn Fitwel certification include on-site fitness equipment, weekly fresh produce sales and the promotion of bicycles over mechanized transportation.

In its pilot phase, from 2010 to 2015, the Fitwel program evaluated 89 public buildings across the U.S. and awarded its top three-star rating to just six of them. But more real estate owners and developers may incorporate active design for the simple reason there’s money in it. Housing studies conducted by Fitwel show that 49 percent of building owners are willing to pay more for residential and commercial projects that demonstrate a positive impact on health. The Fitwel studies don’t say how much more, though.

CfAD has also taken on another partner in its quest to promote healthier lifestyles — mortgage-finance giant Fannie Mae. The corporation’s Healthy Housing Rewards program, which is targeted at low-income housing developers, provides a mortgage-rate reduction of 15 basis points if a property qualifies under Fannie Mae’s healthy housing index. “We’ve come to believe that the building in which you and your family live is the cornerstone,” says Bob Simpson, vice president of affordable and green financing at Fannie Mae, “not just for your financial stability but for your health as well, and this is especially true for very low-income renters.”

But can architecture and savvy urban planning really provide measurable health benefits? While it can certainly help, the hedonistic pleasures of lazing about and popping into convenience stores for Funyuns and a Slurpee have become as American as, well, diet-crushing apple pie. And there are plenty of powerful multinational corporations that profit from the status quo.

And yet, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable issues of our chronic obesity epidemic, leaders at the CDC, CfAD, Jonathan Rose Cos. and other active-design firms remain optimistic. “Over time, experience in these health-promoting environments will change workplace expectations and knowledge of designing for health for employees,” says CfAD’s Frank, “which [in turn] will transform how people behave … in their homes, neighborhoods and family environments.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed quotes from the Center for Active Design.

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