Leading Architect Promotes Health Equity, Affordable Housing

By Dennis Archambault

The World Health Organization believes a healthy community is not defined merely by health status. It is a process of improving health. The “built environment” or structural design plays a key role in that, and architects are the ones primarily involved in designing what is built.

Healthy community advocates should be delighted that Kimberly Dowdell has been elected president of the American Institute of Architects. Dowdell has a pronounced view of the role that architects can play in creating healthy, equitable cities. Architects, she says, are “civic problem-solvers.”  She believes that cities should “focus more on climate action, affordable housing, and health equity. And I believe that architects are uniquely well-equipped to support mayors in these areas.”

Dowdell is a native Detroiter who spent her formative years living and observing her city. It’s significant that as a child she realized the psychological effect of blight on the health and well-being of people exposed to it day-in, day-out. “Hudson’s was boarded-up and was looking very sad. And the people around the building were looking sad. I was thinking: ‘I would like to fix this building.’ I felt if I could do that, I could heal the people around it. And that’s when I went from wanting to be a doctor to wanting to become an architect.”

Arguably, it isn’t that Dowdell lost her interest in healing and adopted urban design. She transformed her passion for health to becoming a doctor of urban design and built structures.

In its platform statement on “What is a healthy community,” the World Health Organization says a healthy community fosters an “accessible social, physical and cultural” environment.

A healthy city creates an “accessible social, physical and cultural environment that facilitates the pursuit of health and well-being.” That includes integrating health equity and sustainability into urban development and planning. This has been central to the philosophy of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy.

With Kimberly Dowdell’s leadership and advocacy at the national level perhaps more architects will focus on how to design healthier communities as much as they focus on how they design interesting buildings.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.

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