Our physical environment helps shape how long and how well we live. The cultural shift brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on many aspects of how our health and well-being are affected by our surroundings. In the early days of the pandemic, we got a brief glimpse into improved air quality because so many of the polluters had to shut down temporarily. As many of our usual favorite past times were restricted, people who had access to green spaces flocked to them as a way to boost activity and mental health. We also gained an appreciation for social infrastructure we may have taken for granted before and that became risky to use, such as accessible public transportation and shared spaces.
While COVID-19 may have highlighted the importance of our physical spaces, environmental issues are not new. Additionally, access to healthy environments continues to be limited for people of lower socioeconomic status, and as a result their full potential for long and healthy lives can go unrealized. As we move into the future, with or without COVID-19, we can draw inspiration from the outcomes we saw during the pandemic to innovate better paths to healthy environments for everyone.
For the 2021-2022 Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge, we are challenging students around the world to take a look at the physical spaces in their communities and ask: how can we design environments that will lead to healthy long lives for people of all ages now and for future generations?
Why does the physical environment matter?
Many aspects of our physical surroundings affect our health and longevity, including both the built environment and the natural environment. Each of these components affect human health and well-being in important ways. Some examples: