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Quickly Noted: Public Health Design

March 25, 2010

The other day, I read this simply amazing piece in Places, an interdisciplinary journal of contemporary architecture, landscape, and urbanism, with particular emphasis on the public realm as physical place and social ideal. While I pride myself in pulling from disparate sources and utilizing unusual ideas to further our work, this article bests my best. Pulling from the fields of disaster recovery, architecture and public health, the author, one Thomas Fisher (Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota), calls his fellow architects to a higher purpose, one upon which our field of disaster recovery will ultimately benefit.

In the article, Fisher notes that the field of architecture functions as would a medical doctor – focused on a single patient, or building. He says:

We largely educate our students according to a medical-model of practice, in which designers mostly work with individual clients, as doctors do with individual patients, to develop custom solutions to site-specific problems. As we have seen in the emergency medical response in Haiti, that approach works best when dealing with people in need of intensive and immediate care; but medical doctors have much less to offer the broader population, whose long-term needs involve sanitation, clean water, and safe and secure shelter.

His recommendation is to remake architecture as a field, using public health as the model. Public health practitioners focus on improving the situation that all of their patients experience daily. From the food they eat, to the vermin that infest their houses, to air they breathe, to the germs they come in contact with, to place where they give birth, to place  where they work. He feels that rebuilding Haiti provides the perfect example of how to train the next bastion of architects using what he calls “Public Interest Design.” By descending upon those areas most in need of preventive rebuilding (the astute amongst us will note that emergency managers call this mitigation) to redesign the very community that has been destroyed (or is in danger of being destroyed) using appropriate technologies and affordable design, architects can act as public health professionals – for the greater good.

Too often our plans ignore those two most crucial parts of the disaster cycle, recovery and mitigation. We swoop in, with our tents and water buffalo and short-term volunteers. We save the most vulnerable, the sick, the dying. Then we rush off to the next disaster. Fisher would have us respond, then call out to those who design (or better yet, have them just show up). Let them design a new world, a safer world, a world where the poorest among us do not live atop shaking ground and in bathtubs surrounded by levies. And if they do, they live in a place that maximizes their chance of survival.

Maybe this is part of the resilience we seek. The involvement of the whole community to rebuild the whole community, in the hopes that that whole community will survive forevermore.

If anyone knows Dr. Fisher, please pass along my thanks.

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