• Analysis
  • February 25, 2019
  • 6 minutes
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Six steps to make cities healthier and happier

Environment factors can shape our physical and mental health

The sun shins over a bustling megacity

Although the environments we live in can shape how we feel and our physical health, cities are rarely designed with our wellbeing in mind.

But a growing movement of health professionals, architects and planners is wising up to the effect of urban environments on all manner of human health concerns. Citizens now clamour for cities to be greener, cleaner and safer, but the growing field isn’t yet transforming urban life as it might.

Here, Apolitical suggests six principles to consider for any public servant working on improving life in the world’s cities. Have more suggestions? Leave us a comment below.

1) Go green

Greenery isn’t a luxury or a privilege: it should form a vital part of any urban ecosystem.

Green space can reduce aggressive behaviours in struggling neighbourhoods; clean polluted air; and even significantly improve a person’s sense of wellbeing even when seen from the home.

Check out how green your city is using Treepedia, a comparative data project recording tree canopy cover in cities across the world.

2) Child-friendly cities

Cities aren’t designed for children: busy roads, air pollution and labyrinthine streets can make the city a danger to children and teens alike. Today, children spend half as much time playing outside as their parents did. According to some, that’s because our cities aren’t welcoming to kids anymore.

Just building playgrounds isn’t enough. In Ghent, city planners laid red-brick pavements connecting playgrounds, youth clubs and schools to help kids navigate the city. In Tel Aviv, the city built toy sheds that children could borrow from and create play spaces wherever they were. Making cities work for kids doesn’t mean cordoning off small areas for them — it means creating safe, open spaces throughout the area that children can use according to their needs.

Some cities have even involved children in the design process. In Hamilton, Canada, policymakers gave cameras to young children to photograph where they wanted to play and suggest how spaces could change to accommodate them.

3) Listen to women

Urban planning is dominated by men, so it’s perhaps no surprise that some argue that cities aren’t designed for women. In the UK, some 60% of women feel unsafe in public spaces, and more women reported experiencing fear in urban areas compared to rural towns.

But it isn’t just safety fears that determine women’s experience of the city — a study in Vienna revealed just how differently women use urban space and public transport.

Where men often said they only travelled to and from work, women reported dropping kids off at school, grocery shopping, caring for relatives and working, and reported more mixed transport usage with more walking and trips on public transport and than their male counterparts

In response, Vienna widened pavements to accommodate buggies, expanded public transport networks and installed ramps for pushchairs. Other cities, like Toronto, Canada, set up a “request stop” system so women could get off buses much closer to their homes.

4) Mind and matter

According to some studies, urban dwellers are at significantly increased risk of depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. The pace of modern life likely contributes to stress levels and unease, but the spaces in which we live are also a vital part of the puzzle.

Some urban designers are setting their sites on one key part of the mental health epidemic: loneliness.

Designers in Melbourne, Australia, integrated kindergartens into nursing homes to give elderly people opportunities to help teach the children and instil a sense of purpose.

Denver, Colorado, built public confessional booths to let people get worries off their chest while moving through the city.

5) Designing out crime

Crime doesn’t just affect victims — even the perception of high crime levels increases the risk of depression and poor mental health.

City planners have long argued that urban design can encourage or discourage crime. Insecure properties present opportunities for burglars, while graffiti and urban decay can invite criminal activity.

On the contrary, improving street lighting can discourage wrongdoing. In Australia, improving transport links from busy nightclubs reduced the build-up of drunk partygoers and minimise the risk of fights breaking out. And fortifying vulnerable property can deter opportunistic thieves.

6) Active living

The health benefits of exercise are too long to list: from reducing obesity to combatting depression, physical activity is crucial to human happiness and wellbeing — but many large cities aren’t conducive to an active life.

Air pollution levels are dangerously high across the world and limited space in which to exercise doesn’t help.

(Picture credit: Pixabay)

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