Architecture Grad Travels Globe in Search of Landscapes Linked to Long Life

Harriett Jameson headshot

Harriett Jameson's research seeks to learn what factors contribute to the phenomenom of "Blue Zones," areas whose residents attain advanced ages at a rate far greater than normal.

Harriett Jameson has experienced the value of growing up in a healthy environment, where the richness of the land fosters community and a sense of well-being. That experience informed her academic pursuits in the University of Virginia School of Architecture.

Jameson, who on Sunday will receive dual master’s degrees in landscape architecture and urban and environmental planning, was raised on her family farm in a rural community near Brownsville in southwest Tennessee. “All of my family are farmers, minus a few Methodist ministers, and we have lived on the farm since 1819,” she said.

“It is my deep connection to that place that originally sparked my interest in designing places for people in cities who don’t have that connection to their environments.”

In 2013, she and Asa Eslocker, a fellow master’s degree candidate in landscape architecture, were awarded U.Va.’s Benjamin Howland Fellowship for an interdisciplinary research project that aimed to travel the globe and study the qualities of places where residents enjoy extremely high longevity.

These hot spots, known as “Blue Zones,” include Loma Linda, California; Sardinia, Italy; and Okinawa, Japan. According to author Dan Buettner, who has studied and written about these areas, residents of those areas reach age 100 at 10 times the rate of the general U.S. population.

Jameson and Eslocker called their project “Landscapes of Longevity,” and through a cultural landscape perspective, researched each site to learn how its physical characteristics support healthy communities and to explore the importance of the sense of place on well-being.

Their intention was to promote a greater understanding of how Blue Zone landscapes can suggest insights and ideas for public spaces that engender healthy aging elsewhere. The vernacular landscapes of the three chosen Blue Zones had, over time, shaped cultures whose daily work, food and social routines enabled citizens to live measurably longer, healthier lives and work productively well into old age.

They interviewed Blue Zone seniors – many of them in their 90s, including a Sardinian family that includes the Guinness Book of World Records’ oldest siblings, nine brothers and sisters whose collective age adds up to 828 years – about the ways they believe their environments contribute to their well-being. With Eslocker’s background in video production – for eight years, he worked in broadcast and investigative news at ABC News in New York – they sought to create a documentary that would highlight the qualitative connections between landscapes and longevity through personal narratives, daily routines and spatial practices.

As a narrative, exhibit and film, “Landscapes of Longevity” is an account of the students’ expedition and journey, retelling the stories of the people and places they met along the way. (More information, including blogs and videos, can be found here.)

Jameson’s background directly influenced her choice of project focus. In 2007, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from U.Va. with a dual major in English and studio art. For three years she worked as an education coordinator at the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C. where she became interested in the design of sustainable cities for the creation of healthy communities.

After enrolling in U.Va.’s Architecture School, Jameson served as a coordinator and researcher with the international Biophilic Cities Project, led by professor Timothy Beatley, which seeks to advance the theory and practice of planning for cities throughout the world that contain an abundance of nature.

Jameson’s design and research interests continue to be in understanding how places work to foster well-being, and to incorporate holistic ideas of health – including spiritual, mental and non-Western concepts – into design and planning.

Her master’s thesis uses the Landscapes of Longevity research found in the Blue Zones to cultivate design strategies for public places that can support healthy aging.

In Loma Linda, for example, there’s an entire culture of people gardening, walking their pets and going to a central gym to socialize with friends. In Sardinia, many of the towns are very dense, so people see their family and friends on the way to church and while running errands.

Jameson’s research also notes the significance of having beautiful views as part of daily life. Over time, scenic views can reduce stress levels and psychologically restore peace of mind. Physically, they help to increase serotonin levels, and that reduction in stress can reduce the risk of heart attacks.

The project sprang directly from a collaborative design studio course about the Charlottesville Farmers’ Market, taught by Elizabeth K. Meyer, associate professor of landscape architecture. Given the increasing rates of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease in the U.S., Eslocker and Jameson became interested in the way that public spaces could foster cultures of health and social equity.

The “Landscapes of Longevity” project was born in April 2013 and earned grants from the School of Architecture, Center for Design and Health, Contemplative Sciences Center, Center for International Studies and Jefferson Area Board for Aging. In addition, advisers and collaborations from the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, Division of Biomedical Informatics, Contemplative Sciences Center and the architecture, urban planning and landscape architecture departments supported them.

“The most exciting work that I have been a part of during my academic career is the Landscapes of Longevity project,” Jameson said. “There is no way this project could have happened without the generous support and time of many departments across Grounds and the dedication, energy and fearlessness of Asa.

“The support for this project among the University and Charlottesville communities has been overwhelming. The project’s success really speaks to the dedication of the U.Va. community to support students in significant interdisciplinary research and to be open-minded about the cross-disciplinary collaborations.”

The Landscape Architecture Foundation recently named Jameson a finalist in its National Olmsted Scholarship program, which recognizes landscape architect students for their leadership, original research and performance.

“The work I achieved at U.Va. – and the national recognition I received – has opened my eyes to further research opportunities examining the relationship between place design and public well-being,” she said.

On Monday, Jameson will begin working in her new job as a lecturer and program director for the Architecture School’s Community Design and Research Center, a position that evolved over the past three years from her collaborative research with Suzanne Moomaw, associate professor of urban and environmental planning.

“Harriett is one of those exceptional individuals who has the intellect, talent and maturity to set new standards for the way we conceptualize and construct the world we share,” Moomaw said. “I continue to be impressed by her ability to bring clarity to difficult public policy and design challenges.

“Her research with me on the defining elements of community resiliency has moved my own thinking to a new level. Like Jefferson, she is ‘bold in the pursuit of knowledge’ with a passion for learning tempered in the practical and the possible.”

Jameson’s responsibilities will include the delivery of the overall program and its activities, developing new initiatives, crafting budgets, funding proposals and building university and community support as well as teaching courses, studios and workshops, as well as planning programs, seminars, exhibits and other events.

“I am very grateful and enthusiastic to have the opportunity to spend more time at the University,” Jameson said. “In this position, I hope to expand upon my graduate research, examining paradigms like universal design and accessibility, play and connectivity.

“I want to further utilize the dynamic connections I have made across Grounds to explore how we can design healthier communities that foster preventative health and holistic well-being in the future.”

As far the “Landscapes of Longevity” project goes, the documentary’s debut has been delayed until fall because of the unexpected death of Eslocker’s father, Tom, a loyal supporter of the students’ project.

As the project’s site states:  “[This event] has both postponed the film and propelled us to see longevity and life in a new way.”

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Robert Hull

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