The Key to Healthier Living in South Texas Might be Better Urban Planning


(adapted from an interview by Stephanie Kuo with Emily Henry, Landscape Architect)

As we start the new year with our Building URBAN Cultures Education Series, it seemed to me that it was only fitting that we focus on health by design. So I ran into an article that talked about the very same issues we are facing here in South Texas. I adapted it to my personal experiences and credit the original interview.

In Texas, the number of adults with diabetes is expected to quadruple over the next 30 years. The prevalence of adult diabetes is more than 20% higher in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties – than the rest of the state. In South Texas, the human suffering and medical expenses of a third of the population living with type 2 diabetes is catastrophic. I became aware of this shocking statistic after my step-brother passed away last year at the age of 28 from Diabetes. There are almost 70,000 people with adult diabetes, equaling 11 percent of the population.

In a 2010 report titled “Responding to the Epidemic: Strategies for Improving Diabetes Care In Texas,” health experts attribute the grim numbers and projections to an obesity epidemic in the state. 

When it comes to combating health problems like obesity or diabetes, most people think it’s the responsibility of doctors and nutritionists. But as an urban designer trained as an architect, my colleagues, planners and engineers also play a role in this contact sport. The way a city is designed can encourage people to walk more and be healthier in their everyday lives.

As I researched I found that the leading edge of health, science, culture and sustainable urban development through UNESCO’s global report I saw concepts and elements of “active design” that will help shape healthy cultures around the world. Here are a few thoughts that I share with landscape architect Emily Henry and a few of my experiences in living in San Antonio.

yanaguana-park-1…On the elements of active design:

“Especially in cities, you want to create spaces that encourage people to walk outside, and a lot of that comes down to basic urban design principles. You want to create streetscapes that are comfortable for people to walk on, that are wide, that have some sort of a barrier between the pedestrian space and the vehicular space, and a rhythm of street trees that provide that barrier and also provide shade. You also want to activate the streetscapes. On the building side, you want stores and restaurants that activate the streets and create spaces where people can congregate outside and spend time with other people.”

…On how a car-dependent city like San Antonio has integrated active design successfully:

Places like the Yanaguana Park at Hemisfair is a great example. It has been converted to a downtown urban park with family friendly activities and heavy programming, so it really encourages people to be outside. Locals can now indulge in what they’ve been craving for, for years. Now not only tourists but locals can go to those spaces and go where there are other people doing other things – whether it’s playing, yoga or simply just having food trucks so you can eat with other people. I think Yanaguana has given the locals the public square back to the people.

…On how active design makes movement more natural:

“You don’t realize that you may be walking a mile or two miles. When your senses are activated, when you’re smelling the coffee as you walk down the street, you’re hearing music from a cafe, it feels better and it encourages people to walk outdoors.”

“If you need to go down the street and pick up something at a CVS, the option is either walk two blocks where there’s absolutely nothing on the street or you can hop in your car, then here, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, that’s the option people are going to go for.”












…On why active design is important for public health:

“… we all have busy lives, and if you don’t provide opportunities for people, in their life, to move naturally by foot, then we’re just going to continue to be in our cars, go through drive-thrus, eat fast food and become more and more unhealthy. It’s really important for the resiliency of our city to create options that activate in order for us to stay healthy, to stay out of the hospital, and keep hospital costs down. All these things are connected. And obviously, if people are healthier, people are happier.”

…On why the Rio Grande Valley has been slow to adopt active design:

I think although McAllen and Edinburg are starting to catch on we’re already kind of behind, so let’s fix the bad decisions we’ve maybe made in the past and learn from those mistakes, look beyond our own boundaries and look at comprehensive solutions to these problems.

“Everybody wants to be healthy. There’s this kind of overwhelming feeling that you have to spend an hour a day in a gym working out, when actually, if you just build your cities in a way that promoted walkability, you simply need to just wake up and go get your cup of coffee and walk to work, and you’re already so much healthier than if you’re in a city where you hop in your car. It’s paramount for us to design our cities so it’s easier to make the healthy decision.”

With this premise in mind the Building URBAN Cultures Education Initiative will focus on how urban design can help us live healthier more sustainable lives in the Rio Grande Valley and combat the dangerous epidemic leaving our families to die at such a young age. We invite you to get involved. Press Day is Wednesday, January 11th at the Republic of the Rio Grande in McAllen from 2-4pm and our first distinguished speaker event is February 2nd with Prof. Rafael Longoria from the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture. Subscribe to our mailing list at or call 210-514-2955


pedroayalaPedro Ayala, Assoc. AIA, Urban Designer – BUILD – Brands + Environments