Jonathan Rose on the Entwinement of Housing and Well-Being

It is rare that Piper Auditorium is filled with men and women wearing business suits. It is rarer still when one of them, a leader in real estate, stands before his fellows and for nearly an hour speaks about the importance of cognitive health in the lives of affordable housing recipients, while evoking particle physics to inspire his peers to develop more socially supportive housing. At the 15th annual Dunlop Lecture on September 29, Jonathan F. P. Rose gave a stirring lecture entitled, “The Entwinement of Housing and Well-Being.”

Rose is president and founder of Jonathan Rose Companies, a multi-disciplinary real estate development, planning, and investment firm whose mission is to repair the fabric of communities. As a natural striation of wrinkled, post-studio students filled the risers behind post-work real estate professionals, Rose called on designers and developers alike to utilize the latest psychological research to advance evidence-based design that improves the health and safety of tenants and cities as a whole.

Rose laid out the realities for affordable housing dwellers and the hardships on their physical and mental health. He cited data from “2014 State of the Nation Housing Report” of the Joint Center for Housing Studies, an organization to which the lecture’s namesake, Professor John T. Dunlop, was deeply dedicated. “More than a third of American households and more than 50 percent of American renters pay more than a third of their income for housing costs.” Although housing is “the platform from which family success grows,” it is also “typically a family’s largest cost. Over 80% of poor families pay more than a third of their income on housing and 69% pay more than half.”

Deepening the economic pressures are the costs of food, utilities–driven up by poorly constructed and energy inefficient buildings–and transportation. Today, transportation is the second major housing cost as poverty is rapidly becoming, in Rose’s words, “a suburban phenomenon.” As members of the working poor are pushed to the peripheries of cities, they are forced to spend “20 to 30 percent of their income on auto-based transportation.”

Many affordable housing tenants are plagued with the stresses of living paycheck to paycheck, frequently moving and having little or no savings. Rose said, “A 2011 study by the National Council for Credit Counseling found that 64 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings to deal with an emergency expense, and 30 percent had no savings whatsoever, other than retirement funds.” These pressures, however, are not isolated within individual households. Rather, they are systemic and pervade the neighborhoods and cities around them.

“Low-income communities are also rife with other stressors, such as crime and neighborhood violence; low-wage, low opportunity work; lack of access to health care; poor food and poor schools.” While these constant problems result in physical maladies such as higher rates of cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, shorter life spans, and increased exposure to air pollution and toxins, they also wreak havoc on stability and cognitive health.

People exposed to such insecurity and trauma during their youth often experience psychological difficulties later in life, making it harder to pull out of the cycle of poverty. “Add to this the episodic stresses of large scale events that are out of the control of any individual or community, and the cognitive security needed to grow healthy children becomes frayed.” The ramifications are not confined to a single struggling generation but are passed on, mutating into an inherited disease with enormous implications for economically struggling areas. “These cognitive stresses have lasting, negative impacts on the child’s physical and mental health for the rest of their lives, and these impacts ripple through their communities,” said Rose.

Quoting Dr. Megan Sandel of the Children’s HealthWatch, Rose offered a 4-pronged agenda in response to the problems he named. “For many of our patients, a safe, decent, affordable home is like a vaccine, it literally keeps them healthy.” Second is exercise, followed by development of mental quiet and space, and finally, actively being part of a community. “These 4 strategies,” he said, “provide the ground upon which psychosocial interventions can be most effective, transforming trauma into resilience.”

Rose continued, “The solutions that we invest in must address cognitive stress, financial stress, environmental and climate stress in an integrated way, tying together solutions to increase resilience at the individual, building, neighborhood and city scales.” He advocated a “massive social impact-bonding program to bring future savings forward.” He emphasized that such a program, “must be accompanied by trauma-aware health and social services that aggressively work to sever the roots of these endemic illnesses.”

Using quantum physics to explain human interconnectivity, Rose concluded his speech by asking the audience to consider how what affects some affects all. “We are just at the beginning of understanding the interconnection between the wellbeing of children, their families, their housing, their neighborhoods and the cities that they live in, but we do know that they are all entwined. Every step that we take to relieve the toxic causes and conditions of economic, psychological and spiritual poverty for one child improves the wellbeing of all of us. And infusing our entwined human system with pervasive altruism, informed by science, carried out with compassion, and dedicated to the wellbeing of all is the ground upon which the relief of endemic poverty will grow.”

Taking questions from students afterward, Rose encouraged GSD designers to consider their role as part of a major research institution, underscoring the importance of placing research at the base of designs that are environmentally and cognitively supportive. He cited hospital designs that incorporate nature for more positive healing experiences for patients. “We need to learn more about these things so we can integrate them into design.”

“There’s been a lot of guessing over the last century about placemaking and what makes psychologically and environmentally good buildings. But in many ways we don’t know. I’d recommend research. And then we really need to make an understanding of the cognitive effects and the social effects and the interdependent effects of place a larger part of the design curriculum.”

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