Caroline Massie

At the U.S. Green Building Council's 2015 Greenbuild conference, which was held in Washington, D.C., last week, Donald Schwarz, a director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—a philanthropy dedicated solely to public health—discussed the importance of community design in fostering a healthy populous. In his talk, Schwarz argued that architects should assist in building what he calls a "culture of health" by working with city officials on smart urban planning. ARCHITECT caught up with Schwarz after his presentation to talk about the foundation's latest initiatives and architects' role in improving public health.

ARCHITECT: How does architecture and the built environment play a role in the foundation’s mission of supporting individual and community efforts in public health?

DS: We do policy work that relates to the ways in which built environments can promote active living and healthier food. Oftentimes, the people who take that impetus are architects. Specifically, we’re funding a project with the Urban Land Institute (ULI), which has a focus on healthy communities now. ULI is working on design issues with the commercial corridors that plague many cities. Those are the areas that link suburbs with downtowns. People have not paid attention to the healthy, active living environments and opportunities for the low-income families who live in those corridors. We’re working with the ULI to develop a typology for those corridors and to figure out what kinds of interventions would work. They’re employing a number of architects in the project’s cities, including Denver, Los Angeles, Nashville, Tenn., and Boise, Iowa.

You presented several data sets that link public health to geography, income, and education. How can architects use that information to drive healthy design?

Architects can use data to be advocates. City planners work with architects and often have a substantial role in decision-making and promoting healthy design. We are trying to provide that data in a usable format for a number of locations so that architects, designers, and builders can be informed and use the information to inspire conversations with people coming together to talk about building for health.

Should architects consider themselves public health workers?

Yes, I think everyone should be a public health worker. Architects think about the built environment and the contexts in which we live, work, learn, and play. They are critical to the future in terms of encouraging a healthy populous.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. It has been updated from its initial publication to correct that Donald Schwarz is one of the directors of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the location of one of the Demonstration Corridor cities is Boise, Iowa.