02/13/2014 10:11 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2014

Healthy Living Choices -- By Design

Today, we might not consider architecture important to physical and mental well-being, but it matters. In fact, design choices and the selection of building materials have a profound impact on the health of individuals and the public at large. As Dr. Richard J. Jackson, M.D., a pediatrician and former head of the CDC National Center for Environmental Health put it, "architects, designers, planners -- those who create the world we are in -- actually have more influence over our heath than 'white coat' doctors sitting at the end of the disease pipeline."

This connection is not new. For thousands of years, the Chinese philosophy of feng shui has emphasized the importance of our surroundings on our well-being. Modern examples abound as well, from the settlement houses of Jane Addams and other urban reformers in the early 20th century, to biologist Rachel Carson's crusade against DDT and other deadly pesticides in the early 1960s, to the "Broken Windows" theory -- that a well-maintained neighborhood may prevent future vandalism and may reduce serious crime.

In each case, our health, our temperament, and even our destiny are thought to be strongly influenced, if not directly shaped, by our lived-in environment.

While the United States faces a burgeoning public health crisis in ballooning obesity rates, architects and planners are leading the way to a healthier future by employing basic healthy design tactics in the development of walking communities. For our children, and for ourselves, we should champion design strategies that encourage more vibrant, active, and healthy living. Doing so will not only help reduce our waistlines and health care costs -- it will spur economic growth and a richer quality of life.

Similarly, we can monitor materials that have the power to help or harm. The interiors of our homes and buildings should not become repositories for harmful chemicals, like the ones still found in some furniture, plastics, and paint. That "new carpet smell" that many people love, for example, is actually the result of toxic off-gassing and can cause dizziness and nausea. Since sourcing of building materials is a key role that architects play for their clients, we should encourage the use of ecologically-friendly construction materials, of which there are now a wide array, in the structures we help to design and create.

We are all products of the world we live in. To the extent we can shape that world -- and that is both the calling and the responsibility of architects and urban planners -- we should do so in ways that facilitate good health and well-being.

In the coming months, I will be sharing insights on more specific design elements and considerations that we can take to encourage health and happiness, and I look forward to a lively dialogue on how design strategies can help our nation address obesity, harmful chemicals, and other public health crises in our midst.

The author is the Chief Executive Officer of the American Institute of Architects. Additional resources on the AIA's thoughts for design and health can be found on the Design and Health page.