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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Can communities foster wellness of body, mind and spirit?

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 3, 2011

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  Deering Farmers' Market,Portland ME (by: Corey Templeton, creative commons license)

I wrote quite a bit toward the end of last year about the connection between places that are sustainable environmentally and those that are sustainable as a matter of health, notably this post on walkability (which I should have retitled) and this one on “healing cities.”  Considering those connections was a step in the right direction, but we need to go farther. 

I think it bugs some of my more focused colleagues ("We need tangible environmental targets! Metrics! Focused work plans!") both within NRDC and outside, but for me a concentration only on the measurable – or even only on the environmental – can lead to a world (not to mention a vocation) without soul and feeling.  In 2011 it’s simply not enough, and I believe we do ourselves and our heirs a disservice if we do not take a more holistic view in crafting our ambitions.  I have no interest in advocating places that are sound environmentally without regard to whether they also nourish the mind and spirit.

pocket park in Geneva (by: pug freak/Donna, creative commons license)Fortunately, the two approaches are not inconsistent.  One can have places that support cleaner air, water, and climate, that respect and conserve nature, while also providing respite and human regeneration, connection to each other and to things larger than ourselves.

In my post on healing places, I invoked my friend and architect Steve Mouzon, who clearly travels this path in his own writing and work.  Today I want to point you to another of Steve’s provocative essays, which I think provides excellent food for thought (as well as a little bit of thought about food, heh) for the new year.  In it he describes “wellness lenses” of body, mind and spirit through which one can consider the built environment.  In each case Steve equates wellness with basic health, or absence of illness, if you will; but there is also a higher aspiration of “fitness,” to which places can also contribute.

Sustainable places can nourish wellness and fitness of body, he writes, with access to healthy food, opportunities for physical activity (“great places to bike, walk, and run”), and reducing the risk of automobile accidents.  I would add, and I’m sure that Steve wouldn’t disagree, that clean air and water, and access to a range of health services are critical components, too.  These, too, can be influenced if not entirely controlled by how we conceive the built environment.  (Steve is attempting to set a frame, not provide all the elements or answers, and promises more in future writing while also referring back to his excellent 2010 book, Original Green.)

Vancouver, WA (courtesy of Campos)Wellness and fitness of mind are fostered by the connections that come with true community, and by access to nature.  The research certainly supports those points, and I would add that a little peace and quiet helps, too.  That’s something a lot of density advocates fail to consider adequately: we need places of reflection as well as of activity and stimulation.  While nature - if present - often supplies the latter, it does not always do so.  I also think that mental health requires urban systems that work well, such as transportation options that relieve stress through comfort, efficiency and reliability rather than creating it with noise, uncertainty, fear and congestion.  And perhaps above all, our communities and neighborhoods need good schools, without which wellness of mind becomes just about impossible for kids and their families.

Steve reaches some of those points, such as the need for places of reflection, under his discussion of wellness of spirit.  And, while recognizing that many matters of the spirit have little to do with the built environment, he hits his stride in this section:

“Wellness of spirit increases when we love our neighbors... but the co-inhabitants of countless subdivisions aren’t really neighbors because the places are designed in such a way that people seldom meet and speak with each other. kids in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (via blog On the Edge, creative commons license)So how can we love our neighbors if we don’t have any?

“Wellness of spirit grows when we do good for others less fortunate. Unfortunately, the American development paradigm has become excruciatingly efficient at separating classes of people in a very fine-grained way so that it is now possible to go interminably through one’s daily life in many places in sprawl without ever seeing anyone notably less fortunate. So how are we going to do good for others less fortunate if we never see them?"

Steve continues by stressing the value of time:

“[T]he focus of our built environment in recent decades has been all about getting bigger and getting more. And we’ve mortgaged ourselves within an inch of our financial lives... or beyond, as many have sadly discovered. Which means that we have to spend countless hours working to pay for it all.

“So it all comes back to time: spending all our time working break-neck for natural things assures that there’s no time left to build our spiritual wellness.”

That rings true, if also a bit depressing. 

cathedral cloisters, Toledo (by: chicago boulevardier/Mike, creative commons license)(I put the phrase “natural things” in bold because Steve doesn’t mean “working for natural things” in the sense of working on behalf of nature.  He really means - I think – using one’s time working for money in order to pay for tangible or material things instead of setting time aside for matters of spirit.  Unfortunately, and perhaps paradoxically, I can attest from personal experience that it is just as easy to spend all one’s time on work motivated by idealism on behalf of nature - and thus neglect the spirit - as it is when the work is motivated by material desires.  It’s hard to rest when one is judged by whether one changes the world.)

“The Wellness Lenses of the Original Green” is not long and does not, as I wrote above, seek to provide answers.  Its purpose is to get us thinking.  Mission accomplished, in my case.  Read it here.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 

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SteveJan 3 2011 12:15 PM

Thanks so much for the kind words, Kaid! You're exactly right about clean water and air. Matter of fact, the lack of such would fall into the category of "putting our bodies in harm's way." There are huge quantities of ideas to be mined with these lenses; this post only scratches the surface.

As for the "natural things" term... you're exactly right; "tangible things" would have gotten the sense of it much better.

BrianJan 3 2011 01:57 PM

Thought provoking! I am a plan commissioner in St. Charles, Illinois, where smart development issues have recently been a source of some controversy--particularly as they relate to density, diversity, and affordable housing. I wrote about this recently myself. (See:!/note.php?note_id=487488452846)

If I may, I'll challenge that part about density advocates "failing to consider" the value of peace and quiet. As I understand it, smart growth entails a proper balance between strategic use of higher-density, transit-oriented development that is PAIRED WITH increased open space. Both components are important.

Formulating sound public policy that incorporates smart growth practices into regional comprehensive planning is tough. Public sentiment and raw inertia are often against us. So, I think it's critical to advocate this aspect of balance--nature and development, idealism and practicality.

Brian Doyle
St. Charles, IL

Kaid @ NRDCJan 3 2011 02:32 PM

Thanks for jumping in, Brian. And I couldn't agree more with you about the multiple goals of smart growth, including increased open space. Unfortunately, it isn't always practiced that way. Let's both keep working to see that balance put into place!

SteveJan 3 2011 03:34 PM

One other thought on privacy & quiet... properly-designed courtyards, even in extremely dense settings, can provide more quietness than many suburban settings. So it isn't just the numbers, it's the character. In other words, design requires more than just bean-counters... something we've forgotten in large swaths of the discipline of planning for the past half-century or so.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 3 2011 06:29 PM

Excellent point, Steve. The things we seek/need are fully compatible with urbanism if we consider and design for them.

SteveJan 4 2011 11:43 AM

Steve - I agree. I live in a highly dense urban area with a walk score of 85. My local tea cafe has a back courtyard which is landscaped fully and beautifully. One would never imagine they were in the middle of a city.

Katelon JeffereysJan 10 2011 10:30 AM

Great article! I have been in the wellness field since the late 70's, and back then, people seemed to think like this article and then somehow it got lost for awhile. I believe that community, true community is THE foundation for true wellness. There is so much separation in our society and it affects every area of our lives, and just as you point out, you can't separate the spiritual from the material either. That is what has led us to many of the problems we are facing individually and environmentally....not religion, true spirituality that supports the interconnectedness of all life!

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