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This weekend marks the second annual Ancestral Health Symposium.  The conference was created to foster “collaboration among scientists, healthcare professionals and laypersons who study and communicate about health from an evolutionary perspective to develop solutions to our modern health challenges” (http://ancestryfoundation.org/).  Fitness specialists, nutrition icons, and PhD organic chemists are only some of the specialists represented at this year’s conference.  To get more of an idea of the content and characters involved, follow on Twitter #AHS12.

What does a conference like this, focused primarily on nutrition and fitness (and thus, health), tell us about the state and future of design?

To address that question, we should properly frame today’s situation.  According to the Kaiser Foundation, as of 2008, 16% of GDP in the U.S. was spent on healthcare.  Projections estimate that the cost will rise to 20% of GDP by 2020, and by 2050, Medicare and Medicaid spending could total 100% of Gross Domestic Product. 

What is the cause of the exponential growth in healthcare related cost?  It is widely known that more than 2/3 of the American population is overweight or obese.  Today’s youth are getting more than 40% of their daily caloric intake from sugar.  The standard American diet has resulted in an average of 70% of food intake from processed carbohydrates, vegetable oil, and sugar.  Despite the nutritional guidelines set forth by the FDA, Americans are getting fatter and living shorter, less fulfilling lives.

Aside from providing beautiful and functional places for people to live, how can designers affect change in this national epidemic?  Do we neglect the declining health of the nation and focus on our chosen fields and being the best landscape architect/architect/engineer we can be, and let the chips fall where they may?  

The recent explosion of this article about Canadian authorities cracking down on a residential front yard garden enforces the ever-growing connection between design and health.  The local codes that seek to prevent this kind of garden from existing are based on aesthetic judgements on what a suburban street should look like.  Your front yard MUST be turf and shrubs, because that’s the way front yards are supposed to look.  

I find this garden beautiful for many reasons.  The primary being that it increases the health of the residents, not to mention the extended community that embraces the garden and enjoys the food it produces.  It connects the residents to their food, and their community.  

This is where we can learn from the Ancestral Health Symposium, and the ancestral health movement as a whole.  Right now, a (relatively) small group of like-minded individuals are making big waves in the health world, as evident by the staggering growth of the slow-food/paleo dietary movements, simply by congregating around a core group of ideas.  

Designers can have this kind of impact, but we must stop gathering around the WRONG ideas.  Building codes, engineering standards, technological BMPs, and aesthetic movements can all be wonderful and useful, but do they connect people to their environment?  Do they strengthen a community and provide health and happiness the way that a front-yard garden in Canada can?  

What should our core group of ideas be?

I propose:

Do our designs and policies create places for people, above all else?

Do our decisions increase the connection between humans and their environment?  This should start with biology and the understanding of the evolution of the human species within a natural environment.

Do our practices increase human health?  This is not the same as preventing injury or harm, much the same as the practice of healthcare should not be confused with the treatment of disease.

We can make big changes, but it won’t be easy.  A small group of motivated people are proving it right now, in Cambridge, Mass.

What change will you make?