Experts in CDC Report Ask: "Do Poorly Designed Communities Deserve a Surgeon General's Warning?"

Need to Design Communities for Better Health Cited as CDC and CNU Team Up for CNU 18 in Atlanta

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CHICAGO – The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) today expressed its support for a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that illustrates the urgent need to weigh public health factors — such as physical activity, respiratory and mental health, water quality, social equity, healthy aging, and social capital — when deciding how to develop and redevelop communities.

The report is the product of a national workshop — held in Atlanta in September 2009 and moderated by Architectural Record’s editor-in-chief, Robert Ivy — that convened experts from academia, architecture, building, development, government, planning, and public health, including CNU CEO John Norquist and CNU board member Ellen Dunham-Jones, the co-author of the award-winning book Retrofitting Suburbia.

In the report, experts cite a growing body of research and make the urgent case that societal ills such as obesity, diabetes and asthma cannot be looked at independently from the form communities take in the United States. As more communities are designed so that a car trip is required to reach every daily destination — school, stores, work, sports facilities — opportunities for regular exercise and for things such as socialization among the elderly are diminished, leaving a lasting impact on public health. It's Dunham-Jones who raises the timely question in the report: Should zoning codes that prevent walkability, connectedness and accessibility for the disabled come with a Surgeon General's warning?

CNU, the premier forum for sustainable urban design implementation, will showcase the health benefits of its solutions for walkable, livable mixed-use neighborhoods at its upcoming national conference, New Urbanism: Rx for Healthy Places, in Atlanta May 19-22. The meeting is being organized with the assistance of the CDC. “How we build and maintain our communities' transportation systems, infrastructure, and public spaces can either exacerbate or reduce obesity, chronic diseases, injury rates, poor mental health, and the adverse effects of climate change,"summarizes Dr. Howard Frumkin, special assistant to the director of the CDC for Climate and Health and honorary chair of CNU 18. The event will bring together Frumkin, Dunham-Jones and other leaders from their fields, including David Byrne, musician and author of Bicycle Diaries; US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan; fellow HUD official Shelley Poticha; Catherine Ross, director of Georgia Tech's Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development; Ellen Dunham-Jones; CNU co-founders Dan Solomon, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Peter Calthorpe, Elizabeth Moule, Andres Duany and many others.

The report cites the need for better coordination and a common language across disciplines such as public health, planning and construction, but shows growing and broad agreement around a vision for what constitutes healthy community design. The vision aligns closely with the Sustainable Communities Partnership of the US Department of Transportation, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency, which will be represented at CNU 18 by US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. It also borrows heavily from efforts such as LEED for Neighborhood Development, the nation’s first rating system for green neighborhood development, created through a partnership of CNU, the US Green Building Council and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Experts attending the meeting and reflected in the report represent a diverse array of groups: CNU, the American Planning Association, the International City/County Management Association, the National Association of City and County Health Officials, the National Association of Home Builders, National Conference of State Legislatures, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Green Building Council. The report can be found at the CDC’s Healthy Places Highlights website.

Other report highlights include:
• Ellen Dunham-Jones, executive chair of CNU 18, suggested that poorly designed communities should received a Surgeon General's warning. “Imagine the impact of, 'The Surgeon General warns: This zoning code may be bad for your community‘s health,‘ said Dunham-Jones. “That would really change the system.”
• When asked to describe the work of CDC’s Healthy Places Initiative, the program’s director Andy Dannenberg said, “The short answer is, When you want people to walk, you have to give them a place to walk. The longer answer is that community design impacts a number of health issues, including obesity, climate change, mental health, social equity, social capital, respiratory health, accessibility, and healthy aging.”
• A case study reporting how Decatur, Georgia reorganized its recreation department around promoting active living throughout the community, going so far as adjusting its zoning codes so that they encourage a pedestrian-friendly environment with more destinations within walking distance of residences.

CNU 18 will incorporate CDC expertise into discussions on how to design and build places that are efficient, affordable, healthful, sustainable and humane. The groundbreaking collaboration between public health professionals and New Urbanist designers and developers is expected to produce innovative thinking and evidence-based, reality-tested solutions to pressing issues facing the nation’s communities.

About CNU

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is the leading organization promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions. For more information, visit,