By 2030, the city of Fayetteville, Ark., is expected to nearly double its population and add 28,000 new housing units to a city that currently has about 23,000 residences. The impact of that growth will be enormous. As traffic, pollution, and suburban sprawl increase, and as the gap between farm and city widens, urban residents will be even more disconnected from local food sources. Today, however, architects and students from the University of Arkansas are working to change all that.

Their project, Fayetteville 2030: Food City Scenario Plan, will develop planning and design schemes to create a sustainable local food infrastructure that can support the city’s burgeoning population growth while reducing reliance on processed and highly industrialized foods.

It is one of three projects that has been awarded an inaugural Decade of Design research grant by the AIA, in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative. The grants offer first-year funding for projects that demonstrate how design can affect public health. The other grant recipients are Texas A&M University, whose Evaluating Health Benefits of Livable Communities project will be a toolkit for measuring the health effects of walkable communities in the Austin area; and the University of New Mexico, which is developing an interdisciplinary program to address community health issues, particularly in and around Albuquerque.

In all cases, the projects emphasize collaboration between architecture and other disciplines, as well as among faculty, staff, practitioners, and subject-matter experts. The work is further integrated between design studios, lectures, fieldwork, and independent studies.

In Fayetteville, the Food City project is spearheaded by the university’s Community Design Center (CDC), an off-campus outreach center of the Fay Jones School of Architecture, which won a $15,000 grant. CDC employs full-time architects who teach an upper-level design studio each semester. This year, the center’s staff architects and students will focus research on a range of scenarios that bring food-growing into the public sphere. The driving question behind the project, according to CDC Director Steve Luoni, Assoc. AIA, is: What if 80 percent of Fayetteville’s new development had to meet its food budget through local agriculture? Static green spaces might be transformed into such things as right-of-way gardens, “agricultural subdivisions,” urban orchards, farmers’ markets, and low-impact irrigation systems that literally feed into the population that uses them.

“Just as a city supplies police, fire, sewer, and electricity, why can’t it also produce a food utility?” says Jeffrey Huber, AIA, assistant director of the CDC. “We’re examining how a city can turn its ornamental landscapes into more food-productive spaces.”

The project is expected to produce an agricultural urbanism model, along with possible design outcomes and a report, due later this year. “We’re trying to push design into areas where design is absent,” Luoni says.

Texas A&M University is using its $20,000 Decade of Design grant to examine Mueller, a New Urbanist neighborhood in Austin. Located on the now-rehabilitated site of vacated Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, the neighborhood was expressly designed to be pedestrian- and activity-friendly, with more than 140 of its 700 total acres devoted to parks and greenways. (San Francisco–based ROMA Design Group and its affiliate ROMA Austin [now McCann Adams Studio] did the initial master plan, and Catellus Development Corp. is the master developer.)

This year, a team of faculty and students from the university’s Center for Health Systems and Design will determine whether living in Mueller increases physical activity—and, if so, how—by interviewing residents, studying circulation patterns, and recording the use of such features as sidewalks, trails, parks, and fields. This research will result in empirical findings about the impact of this new community on the residents’ physical activity and create a toolkit that can be applied to other developments like pedestrian-friendly Colony Park in Austin, Texas.

“The main outcome is being able to measure the change in the level of physical activity before and after they move into the Mueller community,” says project leader Xuemei Zhu, an assistant professor in the Texas A&M College of Architecture and a Center for Health Systems & Design faculty fellow. “The toolkit will help communities to identify what problems they can fix to promote physical activity, whether it’s through new infrastructure, sidewalks, and so on.”

At the University of New Mexico, a $5,000 Decade of Design grant will bring students and faculty into the field to determine how community-based research can inform a new inter-professional public health curriculum at the university. ABC’s Design for Community Health (ABC refers to the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County metro area) is a pilot program that allows students across several disciplines—including architecture, law, pharmacy, and business—to participate in an enhanced version of an existing graduate-level medical course called Health Equity: Introduction to Public Health. According to project leader Michaele Pride, AIA, professor and associate dean of the UNM School of Architecture and Planning, the program will focus on three areas of inquiry: pedestrian injury, exercise and recreation, and the notion of food security. Albuquerque residents suffer pedestrian injuries at double the national average, with a disproportionate percentage of those injuries occurring in lower-income neighborhoods.

“We’re not the first school to realize or acknowledge a critical connection between the built environment and public health,” Pride says, “but, our school of medicine has adopted a curriculum policy that all medical students will earn a certificate in public health before they graduate. That’s a big commitment to the public good. They were doing things like windshield surveys and studying the built environment, and we realized we needed to talk to them.” Those discussions have now grown into a cross-discipline initiative that will continue well beyond the pilot program, Pride says. Right now, the Health Equity course is worth two credits, but some students have already elected to do further independent study for an extra credit hour.

In announcing the Decade of Design grants last September at the Clinton Global Initiative’s 2012 Annual Meeting in New York City, Robert Ivy, FAIA, CEO/EVP of the AIA, noted that these initial projects all focus on data collection, which he called the first critical step in the process to improve public health. “The result of that,” he said,“is changed minds, we hope.”