The Opportunity


DESIGNING HEALTHY PLACES | Tackling Wicked Problems
2017-2018 Designing Healthy Places Student Competition

Sponsors: National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)
                 American Institute of Architects (AIA)
                 Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA)

The Design: Wicked Problem Solving
Thus, cities are landscapes of risk and protection (Fitzpatrick and LaGory). Problems and opportunities are rooted in various forms of contexts—infrastructure, campuses, neighborhoods, ecosystems, and supply chains—all requiring social organization as protection against hazard and risk. Context requires a different form of design problem solving than that for buildings. Buildings are essentially discrete or tame problems with discernable clients, scopes, and known solution types. Conversely, contexts are wicked problems defined by socio-environmental complexity framed by multivariate factors, and for which there are no singular right answers (Brown et al.; and Protzen and Harris). Indeed, framing the problem and developing transferable approaches are critical parts of solution seeking, which may not be altogether clear until well into the process. Like mitigating climate change and revitalizing cities, designing healthy places is among the classic wicked problems defining an ever-growing portion of the design professions’ work.

Wicked problem solving entails development of a vocabulary or set of heterogeneous elements to address multivariate forces operating throughout a context. For instance, in his classic Image of the City, Kevin Lynch employs five elements to understand the general logic of cities: node, element, path, district, and landmark. Likewise, formulation of an operating toolkit encompassing policy and best practices in each of the six designated competition platforms is important in framing individual projects. Toolkits—or grammars of context production—should be communicable and transferable for application in other places. Toolkits ideally provide a comprehensive set of strategies shared among various scales of agency, from the small property owner to developers and local government. Therefore, Designing Healthy Places solutions or scenarios should consist of three parts which graphically communicate: 1) framing of the problem, 2) formulation of a design toolkit that is transferable for use by others, including policy communities, and 3) development of a design project that operationalizes the toolkit.

Six Designing Healthy Places Platforms
Designing Healthy Places Competition is focused on projects that address the intersection of health and placemaking among six topical categories. A winner will be selected in each category. Proposals may include greenfield or urban sites, urban revitalizations, or value-added transformations of existing sites through one of the six categories below. Scenario plans that do not require a site are also appropriate vehicles for designing healthy place frameworks.

  1. Agricultural Urbanism: Food is absent in contemporary American urban planning and policy. There are many reasons to grow food once again in the city, including access to a skilled labor force, greater food security, economic development, and establishment of local markets for high-value nutritious product. What would the city look like if locally-consumed food were to be grown, processed, and distributed around the city? Keep in mind the role that urban food hubs for wholesale, indigenous growing systems, and edible public landscapes once played in feeding the city as well as new technologies and spatial formats like vertical farms. Greenhouses, for instance, ensure greater control over climate, disease, and pests. How might growing systems, food processing, and marketing be cross-programmed with other land uses in the city? In formulating toolkits, think about closed-loop systems between growing systems, urban ecosystems, and cities. Consider appropriate scaled technologies, large-scale nutrient management (building healthy soil), waste recycling, and growing mediums (e.g., wetlands, healthy soil, hydroponics, espaliers, etc.).
  2. Watershed Urbanism: More than half of America’s waterbodies are unsafe for swimming, fishing, and as sources of drinking water due to anthropogenic activity. Typically, urban development eliminates essential watershed landscapes (floodplains, wetlands, riparian corridors, upland buffers, and drainage ways) and functioning. How might city form be reconciled with watershed functioning? How might all new urban infrastructure investments provide ecologically-based water management and deliver the ecological services that all healthy ecosystems like watersheds deliver (University of Arkansas Community Design Center b)? In formulating toolkits consider fluvial geomorphology—the architecture of streams—in terms of their sinuous geometry, erosion and deposition zones, riffle-pool-glide stream section, and riparian cross-section types (Rosgen). Address development problems (e.g., flooding, sedimentation, erosion, etc.) induced by “urban stream syndrome” and the terms by which watersheds and cities can be reconciled. Do not neglect the street network and connectivity in developing reconciliation urban landscapes.
  3. Affordable Housing: According to a 2015 report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 41 percent of households living in the 10 highest-cost major metros could not afford the housing in which they were living. While housing cost increases continue to outpace inflation, a neglected opportunity in housing affordability lies with provision of “missing middle” multifamily housing (Parolek). Missing middle types, including townhouses, duplexes, four-squares, assorted multiplexes, bungalow courts, live-work, and courtyards have not been built since the 1940s once policy and financing privileged single-family home ownership. How might we, once again, build walkable neighborhoods of moderate densities with updated versions of these diverse housing types that were responsive to shifting household structure, and income levels? Toolkits should consider the small scale, incremental quality of missing middle housing fabric that allowed non-commercial builders to build quality housing at affordable cost points. Missing middle fabrics are flexible, offering opportunities to include neighborhood services like daycare, senior community centers, small business, community kitchens, and co-working spaces.
  4. Housing for Aging: By 2030, close to 80 million Baby Boomers will have turned 65 at a rate of 10,000 per day. While more than 85 percent will age in places and housing fabrics that do not support their needs, a tsunami of systemic challenges will compel this cohort to embrace more cooperative structures of living (Blanchard; and University of Arkansas Community Design Center a). The dramatic increase in single-person households among seniors will exacerbate the challenges. Consider that a majority of assisted living residents are institutionalized due to a social deficit (e.g., inadequate housing, absence of caregiving or individual support network) rather than a medical problem. How might low-density residential environments be rethought to support new forms of social and creative activity among senior populations? In constructing the toolkit consider innovation of housing models in between the single-family house and institutional settings, like assisted care, that are unaffordable to most populations. How might fabrics overcome the divide between real estate products and service platform models (Assisted Living, Memory Care, or Skilled Nursing, etc.) to incorporate at-home care services within non-medicalized housing fabrics?
  5. Neighborhood Vitalization: Writers and sociologists from Jane Jacobs to Robert Sampson view the neighborhood as the irreducible spatial format for determining livability, risk, and protection—what Sampson calls “neighborhood effects”. Life chances are shaped largely by one’s neighborhood. Subdivisions and gentrified downtowns reflect what Sharon Zukin calls “investment climates” shaped by growth of the FIRE industries (finance, insurance, and real estate). How might we build places that privilege human capital over investment climates? Human resource planning emphasizes affordable and quality housing, possibilities for social integration, economic competiveness, and health services involving child and elderly care (Ryan; Sampson; and Sharkey). In developing the toolkit, consider what constitutes a neighborhood and its minimum necessary components, scale, limits, and public space network. What kind of spatial or architectural frameworks are necessary to foster security and social connectivity—protections that constitute resilience?
  6. Transportation Ecologies: Urban livability is determined by how we move around. What if transportation systems were to be conceived as an ecology encompassing intermodality rather than a pitting of one modality (cars, trains/streetcars, sidewalks, bicycles) against another? What if streets—our largest single classification of public space—once again were cross-programmed to deliver non-traffic social services related to gathering, strolling, recreating, celebrating, and dining to become the city’s best landscapes (Dover and Massengale)? In constructing toolkits, recall the relationship between transportation and land use neglected in most current planning, except for Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) based on trains. Perhaps modeling begins with Development-Oriented Transit rather than the conventional TOD. Also, consider the role of green streets, parking, and trail infrastructure that deliver ecological services where streets are ecological assets rather than liabilities (Metro; and University of Arkansas Community Design Center c).

The site for the competition is the choice of the student and/or faculty sponsor. It must be in an urban context, close to public transportation and to city amenities. Submissions will be required to demonstrate graphically or otherwise the site selection and strategy.

Refer to the International Building Code and the local zoning ordinance for information on parking requirements, height restrictions, setbacks, easements, flood, egress, and fire containment. Challenges to conventional rules--parking requirements, for example-- are encouraged but should be explained, made explicit and integral to the overall solution.

For questions please contact: 

Eric Wayne Ellis
Allison Smith 
Director of Operations and Programs

Programs Manager


Designing Healthy Places Competition
The Opportunity
Design Guidelines
Competition Guidelines
Competition Organizers

Full Designing Healthy Places Competition Program (PDF)