Big Data Meets Healthy Design

by guest blogger Erin Christensen Ishizaki

Our health is dramatically affected by our surroundings. We intrinsically know this, and now we have big data to understand the complex systems of our environment in a whole new way. Designers are using this data to find specific solutions and improve our quality of life.


For the streetscape of Taylor 28 Apartments in Seattle WA, designers used data analysis to improve health and pedestrian safety. (Photo attribution: Juan Hernandez; Design: Mithun)

In Seattle, we are fortunate to have many leaders that enlighten our approach to healthy community design. These leaders include academics, government agencies, local tech startups, design firms, and more. For example, Seattle Design Festival Honorary Co-Chair Dr. Howard Frumkin of the University of Washington School of Public Health is a leading author of scientific research about public health aspects of the built environment. King County’s Healthy Foods Here program is improving access to healthy foods in the Delridge and White Center neighborhoods. The City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods has funded a food forest in Beacon Hill. Walkability research by Dr. Larry Frank has contributed to user-friendly tools such as those made by local dotcom Walkscore. The Seattle Bike Master Plan is using health as a factor in prioritizing improvements. Designers are using diverse data sets including U.S. Census and their own community-based research and interviews to develop people-focused solutions.


Known as evidence-based design, this data and research helps designers understand unique challenges of each community. Based on these new insights, designers can implement practices that are known to improve our health outcomes and reduce stress. This is a profound shift in design approach.


While working with the Seattle Housing Authority’s High Point community, designers learned that children had a high incidence of asthma. Breathe Easy homes were specifically designed to reduce asthma triggers by minimizing airborne particles and pollutants with hard surface flooring, air filtration, low-VOC paints and hypo-allergenic landscaping. A longitudinal study by the University of Washington showed a resulting 67% decrease in use of emergency care and urgent care clinics.


Another tool that designers use is the Health Impact Assessment (HIA). Seattle firm Mithun used this method in the South Lincoln / Mariposa Redevelopment Plan for the Denver Housing Authority. The HIA formed a basis for creative design thinking to ensure that the plan responded to primary health concerns including the need for improved mobility, walking and biking options, access to healthy food, and social cohesion. Where 55% of the community was overweight and obese, Mariposa now includes easy access to shared B-Cycle bikes and design to promote everyday activity.


While big data is critical, it can only become truly valuable knowledge through a partnership between designers and the perspective of citizens, local schools, community groups, and others. Great design that improves the health of people and planet must be customized and people-focused. One solution does not fit all. Individual input makes a tremendous difference and uncovers hidden issues and opportunities. 


So control your own destiny; when you come across a survey soliciting feedback on a project that affects your community, take it! You play a key role in turning data into knowledge, and helping designers unlock the power of evidence-based design. 



Erin Christensen Ishizaki, is an Associate Principal at Mithun, an urban designer and an architect. Erin’s experience in urban redevelopment and neighborhood planning across the country enables communities, both large and small, to achieve lasting vitality and strength. As a national leader in integrating public health and design, including pioneering health impact assessments for neighborhood planning projects, Erin brings innovative thinking to master planning and redevelopment strategies for local governments, neighborhoods, public housing authorities, transit agencies, and private developers. She is passionate about creating sustainable, high performance development that builds physical and social community and maximizes investment.  


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