By Jessica Osborne
I am hopelessly in love with cities and the stories they tell. In my senior year at Colorado College, I spent the fall semester with a team of students and facilitators in Chicago, focused on Urban Studies. Together, we explored its public systems: schools, parks and recreation, safety, housing, and my favorite of them all, transportation. For the purposes of historical context, my family has called Colorado home for several generations, and after my excursion “abroad”, I was eager to return. I love it here, but those countless moments of lucidity in my Hyde Park apartment no longer allowed me to regard my high desert existence through the same lens. Even now, I yearn for that undeniably distinct sense of place, and to feel as deeply connected to it as Chicagoans do. That being said, I have no plans to relocate to the Windy City. Way too cold for my Colorado sensibilities, and not enough sky.
Later that winter as I was writing my thesis, I moved through my brief experience there. Scampering up the stairs to the El platform, late to class and barely getting through the closing train doors, walking down neighborhood streets thick with fallen leaves, coffee shops and karaoke bars next to neat rows of brick homes. The people around me who helped negotiate foreign circumstances, and connected me to experiences that moved me at times to tears, and later to action. I learned Chicago best through its inhabitants and their daily rituals that for a moment were also mine.
And the undeniably raw beauty of the city is ubiquitous. The wisdom of communities who protected their children, elders, and their vulnerable, those who celebrated their stories, and loved their streets, and those who didn’t. The startling dichotomy of pride and disinvestment could vary by any given block I happened to walk through.
I subsequently earned dual Masters Degrees in Urban and Regional Planning and Urban Design and a certificate in Historic Preservation. I studied in Rome, and continue to travel, always fascinated by how people define place. After years of working in local government as a strategic planner, and a brief sojourn into consulting for a planning and design firm, my career is in public health, refining the connections that link the built environment to population-based health and well-being. The linkages between the two concepts converge in elegant ways as my perspective and understanding grows. My awareness of how our country and state is impacted by obesity and chronic disease demands action, and I am determined to fix the broken system that inadequately supports the health and well-being of people. I want people to access great places that inspire and also improve their health.
I believe how we choose to define our wellness is inextricably linked to where and how we live. Place making can begin as an intricate system of bureaucratic checks and balances, decisions made on paper, soberly judged by a standard we collectively agree upon. Or it could be organic and spontaneous, authentic, and original. My colleague in public health often poses this question: What we design and build will inevitably have an impact on our health. The question is what kind of an impact would you like to have?
Jessica Osborne is an urban planner and designer working for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, linking the built environment to health for communities across the state