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University of Virginia

August 26, 2011

The conditions of 21st-century life – an aging population, environmental pollution, rapid urbanization, increased poverty, the rising cost of medical care, the need for preventive medicine and developments in social and medical science – have created a host of challenges and opportunities for those who design and plan environments that aid and nurture health and well-being.

Recognizing the relationship between design and health, the University of Virginia School of Architecture on May 12 launched the Center for Design and Health [link to:] to pursue cross-disciplinary research to advance the design and planning of patient-centered facilities and healthy neighborhoods, towns and cities.

The goal of the center is to empower faculty and community collaborations, according to the center website. It will act as a catalyst, providing seed funding to new research and projects already under way that bring together researchers from a variety of disciplines to address design challenges that incorporate the expertise of design professionals, policy planners and health professionals.

"City planners and urban designers rarely understand, or have systemically studied, the long-term health effects of their work," said Timothy Beatley, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities in the School of Architecture. "The activities of the center in focusing on the measurable health effects of, say, green features such as trees, community gardens, trails and nearby nature, will help to change that."

Beatley and Reuben M. Rainey, William Stone Weedon Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture, co-direct the center.

Initial collaborations include a post-occupancy study for the Shands Cancer Center in Gainesville, Fla.; a partnership with the U.Va. Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center that resulted in the inclusion of original works of art throughout the center that complement the building's natural light-filled spaces and natural materials, part of the center's mission to provide cutting-edge care in a patient-friendly facility; and biophilic cities work around the globe. This spring the Architecture School and School of Medicine partnered on a Medical Center Hour, symposium and exhibit focused on photographs taken inside and outside of abandoned mental health facilities by Christopher Payne.

Although based in the School of Architecture, the center aims to engage the school's faculty, alumni and students who seek or are working in careers in health-related design and planning, with faculty from areas across the University who have expertise in physical, emotional or community health, including the schools of Medicine and Nursing, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the departments of Psychology, Anthropology and Sociology.

In addition, partnerships with design and planning professionals working on health-related projects as well as faculty at other universities will be welcome, Beatley said.

The center's research efforts will focus primarily on the work of planners and designers, and the body of knowledge produced will be relevant to the concerns of administrators of medical facilities, medical and nursing schools, schools of public health, public officials and citizen advocates concerned with creating, sustaining and supporting healthy environments, Beatley said.

Projects may include research related to aging in place, healing landscapes, health and public spaces, food and nutrition, disaster housing and recovery, healthy design for hospitals and other health care facilities, and biophilic cities that embrace the concept of incorporating nature into the urban fabric with elements, such as urban farming and green rooftops, that take advantage of the healing power and life-enhancing potential of reconnecting to the natural world. The center's website will provide information on the research activities.

"The center is intended, in part, to create spaces and opportunities for designers to work together and learn from other disciplines concerned with health. No one discipline has all the answers, and the health and design agenda is necessarily multidisciplinary," Beatley said.

The center is seeking emerging scholars to participate in the inaugural Faculty Fellows Program [link to:]. Three fellows, chosen from full-time faculty of any department or school at the University other than the School of Architecture, will be offered for the 2011-12 academic year. Chosen fellows, who will work to develop long-term scholarly research agendas related to health implications of design and planning the built environment, will receive a $3,000 stipend. Fellows are expected to participate in the life of the Architecture School and to begin collaborations with faculty there.

Also, research grants of up to $3,000 per project are available to Architecture School faculty with innovative research questions and projects.

Fellowship and grant applications will be accepted through July 1 and the fellowships will begin Sept. 1.

The grants and fellowships are intended to be catalytic and to help lay the foundation for larger awards from other funding agencies, including University grants, state and federal agencies, foundations, corporations and private individuals, Beatley said. Individual members of the center are responsible for securing funding for research projects.

The center's role is to foster synergistic relationships and grant proposals through its activities, including symposia, lectures and roundtable discussions where ideas are vetted, as well as a Web presence that will encourage researchers with complementary interests to find each other, he said.

The center's Design and Health Lecture Series will explore practice and emerging new ideas in design and health. The series will feature three to five lectures each year, given by University faculty, practitioners and visitors. The center also will co-sponsor lectures organized by the Medical Center Hour, the U.Va. Medical School's weekly forum on medicine and society.

An important long-term aspect of the center's work will be to develop new courses and curricula focused on health and the built environment. To start, the center will post a list of such existing courses offered by faculty across Grounds on the center's website.

Down the road, the center plans to identify and help create new courses and curricula to help strengthen educational opportunities in the area of design and health, Beatley said. New courses might include a series of short courses on specialized design and health subjects, such as healthy hospital design, community design for walkable and healthy cities, or semester-long classes co-taught by professors and researchers in various fields with a focus on building new insights about multidisciplinary practice.

Also under exploration is the idea of a new design and health certificate that would initially be available to students in the School of Architecture and eventually to students in allied fields across the University.

"The center builds on work already being carried out in the School of Architecture and looks to embrace other disciplines to expand and enhance research related to issues of design and health that have implications for individuals, our public spaces and the planet," Architecture School Dean Kim Tanzer said.

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