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Design Lab: How can we design healthier urban environments that help prevent chronic diseases?

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Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are chronic diseases that include cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes. Eighty percent of deaths from these diseases occur in low- and middle-income countries, especially among impoverished communities and children. NCDs are far more prevalent in urban settings and the situation will only worsen with rapid urbanization in emerging economies. New policies and greater resource allocation at the local level, along with designing healthier urban environments, is essential to reduce the risk factors of NCDs.

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Johanna Ralston, chief executive officer of the World Heart Federation, challenged CGI members to help address the goal of reducing premature mortality worldwide by 25 percent by 2025. Ralston exposed key myths around NCDs, emphasizing that they are urgent and they affect the world’s poorest the most. She highlighted the need for NCDs to be addressed by policymakers at the local level through changes in urban planning and the design of healthier urban environments.

Robert Ivy, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the American Institute of Architects, encouraged CGI members to consider the power of design thinking in city design and urban planning, in terms of both the existing physical space and the impact of new development on the surrounding environment. Using the examples of New York City and Saudi Arabia, Ivy explained how design has the power to make cities more sustainable, healthier, and safer, both in developed counties and in emerging markets.


Actionable Ideas

• Create smart phone apps that encourage city residents, especially children, to get outside and interact with the urban environment.

• Distribute food to communities through mobile markets that also provide education on healthy eating habits.

• Encourage physical activity through an inter-community competition that would be monitored by a smart phone app.

• Encourage urban planners to create ‘20 minute neighborhoods’ where everything community members need is within a 20-minute walking distance, discouraging the use of vehicles for everyday needs.

• Start an international advocacy campaign that highlights best practices in urban planning and recognizes the plight of poor urban communities as a result of rapid urbanization in emerging economies.

• Revitalize public spaces by creating ‘micro-villages’ that feature public markets, micro-businesses, and communal exercise.

• Build gardens on the tops of buildings in cities that will provide food for city residents and remediate air pollutants, while simultaneously creating new agricultural businesses in cities.


During this session, CGI members envisioned a variety of micro- and macro-level solutions that address risk factors associated with NCDs in urban environments. From educational cell phone apps to mobile markets to public spaces that encourage physical activity, members focused on the importance of design in preventing chronic diseases and were encouraged to continue to collaborate and build upon the actionable ideas that were developed in this session.


Session Moderators:

John Cary, Founder and Editor, PublicInterestDesign.org

Liz Ogbu, Scholar in Residence, Center for Art and Public Life, California College of the Arts


Johanna Ralston, Chief Executive Officer, World Heart Federation

Robert Ivy, Executive Vice President and CEO, American Institute of Architects


“True sustainability involves not just making buildings more efficient, but also involves recognizing what they do for people in terms of their health and their safety.” — Robert Ivy, Executive Vice President and CEO, American Institute of Architects