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Don's report archive

by Donald B. Ardell, Ph. D.
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Wellness in the Headlines
(Don's Report to the World)

Designing A Well Environment (Part Two)

Saturday February 26, 2005


In the first essay in this series, I described my occasional role as part city planner, part wellness promoter helping developers create new--and healthy, communities. I described a project that took me to Texas this week wherein I would relate wellness principles to the design of a resort-like community. The goal? To help the designers create an environment that encourages and reinforces a high quality of life consistent with wellness lifestyles. The introductory essay offered a general sense of the challenge, with references to a few pioneers of well cities, such as Lewis Mumford. However, I ran out of space before getting specific about my likely recommendations.

In case you missed the first essay, my charge is to connect wellness with the planning, design and programming of a new community. I am asked, "How do I foresee wellness being experienced at this community, woven into homeowner lives?" I am requested to discuss the "integration of concerns of multicultural families and generation X types with such issues as aging, heart disease, obesity." Also, "retirees seeking meaning and purpose." There's more. The sponsors wish me to "translate the philosophy of wellness into tangible ideas, such as the design of homes, the use of green space, an arts center, transportation, education and so on." In so many words, I am to leave the planners with "a sense of how living an epic life can be experienced by future residents of this community." Put in summary fashion, I'm asked for ideas and suggestions for the planning team "that can change the way people live in a model wellness community!" To address all this, I have 30 minutes. 

It's not always easy being a wellness promoter. But, someone has to do. If I declined this challenge now, might I regret it later? Would I look back on the opportunity when I'm, Oh, about 110, and wonder what might have been, had I been bolder back in 2005? In this case, it seems I'd rather be grandiose about my possibilities to make a difference than let it go, so I accepted the challenge. 

I think I'll start my response with a question to the planning group in Texas. I'll ask: "What do the following seven cities have in common? Jacksonville, FL; Omaha, NE; Chattanooga, TN; Hobart, IN; Lincoln, NE; Kearney, NE and Kanawha Valley, WV?"

The answer, I'll explain, is this: These are America's healthiest cities, according to the Wellness Councils of America (WELCOA), which conducts an elaborate assessment process leading to this distinction based on an elaborate set of well city criteria.

A key criterion for WELCOA in granting well city status is that a certain percentage (20%) of a community's working population labor at healthy work places. A process is also in place (seven years running) that enables WELCOA to make this assessment with some confidence that they are picking genuine winners. At this time, tens of thousands of employees in hundreds of workplaces go to work daily in sites adjudged as "well workplaces" by WELCOA. Well worksite companies have many of the characteristics that I will advise for the new community in Texas, including an ethic of self-responsibility, a focus on prevention and a custom to devote an hour daily to walking, jogging, riding or some form of structured exercise. Naturally, the availability of facilities (and programming within) that encourage such things as pick-up games of varied kinds and, not last by any means and definitely not least, nutritious lunches that reward people for getting and staying healthy can help family members in new communities live well, also.

It is important to recognize that such companies are not just being nice for nice sake, or engaged in some kind of private charity work. Quite the reverse--these kinds of well city and well company initiatives enable organizations to be more progressive, to attract better people, to be more productive and to enjoy higher profits than competitors not offering such opportunities. The leaders of WELCOA's well cities know that a healthy workforce is essential to continued growth and prosperity, that healthcare costs are a bottom line enemy, that most of the illness in the U.S. is directly preventable, that the workplace is an ideal setting to address health and well-being and that community wellness programs can transform corporate culture and change lives. The phrase that applies, I believe, is enlightened self-interest that works for everyone.

Imagine a similar role played by the WELCOA well companies for a community. That is one idea I will put to the developers in Texas. Why not plan a community in physical ways that generate a climate for prevention and a shared value for wellness lifestyles? Exercise can be the foundation but the number of layers above the baseline of physical activity is nearly limitless. (Physician and marathon runner Walter Bortz, 74-year old author of the book Dare To Be 100, says that "the most important organ in older people is not their heart, lungs or kidneys, but their legs.")

Thinking in terms of well cities and well companies, as does WELCOA and the leaders of the seven designated cities noted above, seems a partial response to my charge to offer ideas and suggestions" that can change the way people live in a model wellness community!" Don't you agree? Another suggestion that can change the way people live in this new Texas resort would be if an ethic of continuing education were somehow designed into the fabric of community life. Education has been shown to be a key to wellness and the good life. It is one of the clearest indicators of health status in older life. The National Academies of Science recently released a study report showing that disability rates for persons 65 to 74 decreased at every level of educational attainment. The more education seniors attained, the less likely they were to suffer chronic illnesses. The new town in Texas need not issue advanced degrees, but if it provides a learning environment in all skill areas of wellness, it will enhance the learning curve and the attendant quality of life for all who choose to live here. This can be done with daily lectures at the community nature center, daily history talks at the Wellness Center, nightly demonstrations about the universe at the modest but treasured community planetarium and a progressive book/DVD and CD circulation at the community private library. Furthermore, signage such as historic markers can be placed throughout the community to help residents seize the "teachable moments" available daily in nature (for examples, notations about the fauna, bird life, wetlands) that are visible within and around the site and in the area's rich history.

So, to address the specific questions, wellness is best experienced at this community by weaving it into homeowner lives. Wellness is a way of life, not a weekend program consisting of lectures, books, videos or single function activities. It is part of the community mindset. Or, it is for the designers to make it so in subtle ways in everything they do creating the human environment that fits into the natural one. The area is fortunate to be populated by multicultural families and generation X types, who will find the wellness ethic as attractive as those in their later years acutely aware of the consequences of poor choices, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and so on. All can share a conscious embrace of all that is entailed in the daily quest for added meaning and purpose. This dimension of wellness is far too rich to put off for the retirement years. As for tangible ideas, start with an awareness of what is already underway in Texas alone (not to dwell on the extensive national resources for wellness education) in the Texas State Agency for Worksite Wellness, the famous Cooper Wellness Clinic, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the "Wellness in the City" Program sponsored by the Texas Cooperative Extension Institute. All can be starter resources just within the state itself for tangible ideas on wellness-friendly home design, and some may be willing to support additional uses of green space and the desired community centers for the arts, continuing education and so on." 

The goal of life in this well community, in just a few words, IS to promote a sense that it is possible, desirable and worthy to seek nothing less than an epic life. This is done in part by designing into the community an ethic that promotes the deliberate daily quest to safeguard and advance such values as daily investments in physical and mental well-being, service to others, appreciation of the environment and the pursuit of one's passions. When people function thusly, and are supported and encouraged and assisted in doing so, they will find a quality existence in a model wellness community. 

Be well. Always look on the bright side of life.

Domain: purpose
Subdomain: applied wellness

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