The ways we build our places and our buildings have effects that range from the notable to the profound upon our wellness. Specifically, this is wellness of body, wellness of mind, and even wellness of spirit. Our places and our buildings aren’t the only things that affect our wellness; many things affecting wellness operate completely outside the realm of the built environment, of course.
It is often helpful to look at an idea through the lens of a different set of ideas. Today’s post lays out the framework of the Lenses of Wellness through which we’ll look at the Original Green a number of times next year. We’ll also look through other sets of lenses, including the Lenses of Value, Meaning, Delight, and Connectedness.
Wellness of Body
Before getting into specific types of wellness of body, let’s consider that while the people watching the race above might be well, the runners running the race are not only well, but also fit. Wellness is the threshold below which we are ill; fitness occurs by getting well above that threshold. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s consider fitness a higher form of wellness.
Wellness of body begins with the things that we put into our bodies. We will look at how Nourishable Places contribute to our wellness of body in this way, and also the ways that the processed foods (or “food-like substances,” according to Michael Pollan) that come to us from around the world can rob us of our wellness.
Wellness of body can also be enhanced or lost by what we do to our bodies. Accessible Places are great places to bike, walk, and run, which enhance wellness. Sprawl, on the other hand, is where you have to drive everywhere, and the resulting sedentary lifestyle is arguably the single largest contributor (just ahead of processed foods) of our obesity epidemic.
Finally, wellness of body can also be impacted by where we put our bodies, such as in harm’s way. Automobile accidents account for tens of thousands of deaths each year, and hundreds of thousands of serious injuries in those who survive.
Wellness of Mind
This image of the entrance to a university represents the fitness of mind, which as noted for the body, is a higher form of wellness. There are at least four attributes of the built environment which contribute to wellness of mind: Community, Balance, Nature, and Love.
A community is a group of people united by an idea, a place, or some combination thereof. Mental wellness has been shown time and again to be enhanced by being part of an identifiable community. The estrangement that comes with lack of community is often a precursor to mental illness. The built environment doesn’t create community, as any ghost town clearly shows, but it can set the stage for community to occur.
Balance is achieved in many ways that have nothing to do with the built environment, but there are ways it can contribute to or detract from our balance. Variety in the places we inhabit and the people that inhabit them with us allow us to experience life more broadly.
Nature lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from community, because non-human forms of nature flourish most heartily when there aren’t so many humans around. But we can’t do without it. We have known for millennia that humans have a great need for connection with the rest of nature that is not human. Places that allow us the occasional immersive experiences in nature without too much difficulty or distance clearly contribute to our wellness of mind.
Let’s be clear about love: the built environment typically does not elicit the ardor of these two young lovers. Love for places and buildings is softer, most often something akin to a gentle resonance rather than a love to die for. But because those with no love in their life are particularly at risk of mental illness, it’s possible that a most-loved place might be just the thing that keeps them above the threshold of wellness.
Wellness of Spirit
I have hesitated for years to speak of wellness of spirit for two reasons: most issues of wellness of spirit are far beyond the scope of influence of the built environment, and also because of the value of time. Value is a function of time in this way: If two things do good at the same rate but one lasts twice as long, the longer-lasting thing is twice as valuable. So anything that lasts forever is incomparably more important than everything that passes away.
Everything in the built environment will someday pass away. If you believe that humans have a spirit that can live on beyond our bodies, then the importance of the spirit is incomparably greater than anything our bodies might build.
Speaking of matters of the spirit alongside matters of the built environment therefore seems like a colossal mismatch. But if the built environment can affect wellness of spirit, then it seems like an essential conversation. Here are some of those influences:
Every system of spirituality I’m aware of requires times of quiet contemplation or meditation. Are we building places of respite where we can truly be alone for a time?
On the other hand, spirituality also requires times of togetherness, or fellowship, with those who share and can help strengthen or restore our spirituality. Unfortunately, the sprawling world we’ve built recently usually fails on both these counts because in most places there are people around us most of the time, but normally in meaningless relationships like waiting on a red light side by side. So it doesn’t usually set the stage for either profound togetherness or profound aloneness. Is this part of the reason so many spiritual communities have struggled in the modern era?
Wellness of spirit increases when we love our neighbors... but the co-inhabitants of countless subdivisions aren’t really neighbors because the places are designed in such a way that people seldom meet and speak with each other. So how can we love our neighbors if we don’t have any?
Wellness of spirit grows when we do good for others less fortunate. Unfortunately, the American development paradigm has become excruciatingly efficient at separating classes of people in a very fine-grained way so that it is now possible to go interminably through one’s daily life in many places in sprawl without ever seeing anyone notably less fortunate. So how are we going to do good for others less fortunate if we never see them? Licking an envelope with a check inside is a very poor substitute even if the needy received more than a tiny fraction of our donations.
Most would agree that wellness of spirit can easily be at odds with natural wealth because the natural things that are visible can so easily crowd out the spiritual things that are invisible. Yet the focus of our built environment in recent decades has been all about getting bigger and getting more. And we’ve mortgaged ourselves within an inch of our financial lives... or beyond, as many have sadly discovered. Which means that we have to spend countless hours working to pay for it all.
So it all comes back to time: spending all our time working break-neck for natural things assures that there’s no time left to build our spiritual wellness. But paradoxically, it’s the spirit which can carry the greatest value... or not... simply because it goes on forever. So maybe it’s time to reconsider the things we’re building and the things we’re buying in light of the things that last the longest, and begin to show a bit more frugality concerning the things we’ll someday have to put away.
Monday, December 20, 2010 - 10:50 PM
Wellness of spirit indeed should be our utmost effort. Such a thoughtful, well structured blog Steve. Thanks!
Tuesday, December 21, 2010 - 12:00 AM
Kaid @ NRDC
What a fabulous essay, Steve - one of your best, and that's saying a lot. I'll be referring to it. Best wishes for a well, fit, and nourishing 2011!
Tuesday, December 21, 2010 - 08:57 AM
I appreciate that, Wanda! And thanks so much, Kaid! If anyone hasn't read Kaid's blog you really should... it's highly useful stuff.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010 - 10:46 PM
Steve, thank you for the beautiful words and images! The connections are powerful and invigorating. I'm with Kaid, I'll be returning to them in the new year.
Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:05 AM
Thanks so much, Hazel! Kaid, when you and Hazel blog in connection with this post, please remember to post links here so that everyone can read your posts... thanks!
Saturday, December 25, 2010 - 08:20 AM
Congratulations, you just overloaded my bullshit meter. At least you managed to use 400 words to say nothing, you'll always have that to admire.
Sunday, December 26, 2010 - 12:30 PM
Not sure how to respond to this, since you didn't give any indication what in particular you're objecting to. If you've done what your name implies and unsubscribed, we won't ever know, either. I do think unsubscribing was probably a good move on your part, because if you regard everything in this post as worthless ("...say(ing) nothing...") then you'd likely be unsatisfied with future material here as well.
Sunday, January 2, 2011 - 01:21 PM
Wonderful essay Steve. I am especially appreciative of your discussion on the wellness of Spirit. All too often we avoid this discussion in fear we might offend or be politically incorrect. Too think that we are going to be spiritually healthy by driving to church once a week is like thinking we are going to be physically healthy by driving to the gym once a week or eating a salad with our super-sized meal. Just as sprawl has proven to cause obesity and other environmental healthy problems, maybe sprawl is undermining our moral stability as well? I wonder if there are any studies on this?
Monday, January 3, 2011 - 11:28 AM
Thanks, Geoffrey! I'm not aware of any such studies, but neither is this a question I often hear asked. There are a lot of intertwined issues here that it may take awhile to unravel. For example, there are many communities of faith that are now almost completely sprawl-based, and their facilities can often be mistaken for mega-schools or super-malls. How hard would it be for them to ask the question "is the physical form we have built actually undermining the message we are trying to spread?" Tough question to ask oneself. There are several others like this that are equally tough to ask.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011 - 05:48 PM
Scott M B Gustafson
I think that this essay brings up several great benchmarks with which to measure a project by. The distinction between wellness and fitness is particularly interesting as it defines wellness as only a threshold, a line between fitness and illness. Being well just isn't good enough! If you haven't seen it already, the Sabbath Manifesto has some great things to say about time, community and balance. See also "What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space"
Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - 02:20 PM
Thanks, Scott! I hadn't heard about the Sabbath Manifesto until you mentioned it somewhere else recently... can't recall where right now. But it's excellent material... others should check out the link.
Tangentially, it's a classic example of how a pattern-based approach can achieve broad appeal that a packaged approach cannot. Here's what I mean by that: In architecture, style is a blunt instrument; you either like a style or you don't. But when we get down to talking about individual patterns (eaves, porch railings, etc.) then those are small enough bites that most people can generally agree about the ones that are most appropriate to a place.
Religion is similar in this regard: if you're talking about a religion as a whole, then you're either a believer or you're not. But if you're talking about individual principles, such as the ten principles of the Sabbath Manifesto, then we find that we can reach agreement upon the individual principles much more easily. Matter of fact, every reader should take this challenge: no matter what your faith, go to Scott's link, which advocates a weekly day of rest. Let's don't quibble about which day of the week for the moment. But if a weekly day of rest is something that can fit into your worldview, then have a look at the ten principles and tell me which you really disagree with. Except for number 7 and non-drinkers, I can't see anything that doesn't in principle sound like a good idea, right? Comments, anyone?