How does living in a city contribute to health and well-being?


Several noted physicians, including Ian Robers, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have claimed that in the 21st century architects and planners will have a larger impact on health than health care professionals. In the forthcoming book, Safety Sustainability and Future Urban Transport, Ian argues that despite the safety risks of cycling in cities with rough traffic density like Delhi or Sao Paulo, the risk of not being physically active is higher. Jeff Risom and Claire Mookerjee have also contributed a chapter to the book with insights from New York, Copenhagen, and Chennai, India that is scheduled for release in early 2013.

At Gehl we are utilizing a people first perspective to explore how built form directly affects (positively or negatively) health, happiness, safety and well-being. Helle Søholt recently participated in the TEDxFMUSP event in Sao Paulo with a focus on health in cities, participating in a discussion about planning not only taking into account the social need of people, but the possibility of architectural provisions favoring the networks that scientists call “social capital.” Kristian Villadsen was a keynote speaker at Then/Now#6 hosted by NAI (Netherlands Architecture Institute) in a discussion and investigation of fruitful forms of cooperation between architects, governments and private commissioners which can lead to new spatial visions for a healthy society.

In the attached video of Kristian’s presentation he highlights research by Bente Klarlund (“Byer til at gå i” Weekendavisen 16 october, 2009), where she points out that since the 1990’s life expectancy in USA has increased 2.5 years, but in the same period life expectancy in New York has risen 6.2 years. Cities are healthier simply because we walk.

A person who lives in a suburban density is at least 10 pounds heavier than the average person who lives in an urban density, all other things being equal.

So what is the difference between the suburb and the city, one factor is the closeness and convenience of walking and biking. Cities, with their higher density, greater proximity to services and higher intensity of uses promote physical activity because we have more of a tendency to walk and use active forms of transportation in the city.

If all non-cyclists in Denmark became cyclists, about 12000 deaths linked to too little physical activity would be prevented every year as a result of cycling activity; and there are only 30 cyclists killed in traffic accidents annually.’
(The Lancet Volume 380, July 21, 2012)

In the creation of a city facilitating human activity, it is all about the awareness of distance and convenience. Generally people do not move because they want to be healthier, they move because it is the easiest way to get from A to B in your everyday.

So the ways we build, how close things are, affect the human activity and the health of the population in a diversely developed city.

For instance, a straight-line distance of about 400 to 500 meters between where you live and a grocery store or an eating or drinking establishment will result in directly increased walking … Walking increases for individuals about 20 percent for each park that is within a 1-kilometer distance of a residential area.
(Mark Holland – a former director of Vancouver’s sustainability office and a founder of the Healing Cities Institute)

Amenity is a key factor in the development of a city supporting the health of the population, when people move not because they need to – but because it is convenient.

1 comment
  1. This is fascinating research and is contrary to how many people seek healthy lives in low population density rural areas in Australia. The phenomenon of people moving to rural towns and coastal or bush areas often corresponds with increased car use and time spent in cars which runs counter to healthy active lives. I see many many people in our inner urban suburb of Brunswick on their bicycles with no need of a car, and this to me seems the ideal way to live – whatever your age.

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