Our health deserves better

Following my last blog: Built Environment & Our Health I have continued to explore the linkage between health and the built environment. 

Our health can be split into mental and physical health. Mental health refers to cognitive, behavioral, and emotional well-being. It is all about how people think, feel, and behave. Physical health is the state of being free from illness or injury. It can cover a wide range of areas including healthy diet, healthy weight, dental health, personal hygiene and sleep. Physical health is vital for overall well-being. The promotion of good physical health has been present in planning decisions for a number of years but mental health has really come to the forefront-  sadly it took a pandemic. The built environment is responsible for where we live, work, play and learn and therefore it has big impacts on our health throughout the day. The space around us can be a factor towards having a good or bad day. 

There needs to be a change in how the built environment, particularly planning cities, focuses on promoting wellbeing – both physical and mental – and making it at the heart of creating our spaces for now and the future. . 

I have had the benefit of growing up in Sheffield. There are many reasons I love the City but top of the list is the environment. Sheffield is estimated to contain more than 4.5 million trees, giving it more trees per person than any other city in Europe. With over 250 public parks and 52 square miles of national park, Sheffield remains one of the greenest cities in the country. My childhood involved many trips to Padley Gorge for walking and rock climbing. Something we have continued with our children but it’s not just the peak district, the City is green throughout. All in all I feel like I have benefited from living in such a green city (the well named Outdoor City!). 

Exposure to natural environments has a positive impact in reducing stress and depression and exposure as a child can reduce the risk of developing mental health challenges as an adult. Green space needs to be accessible though! So imagine having pocket green spaces with green streets interconnected via green pathways and passages. Allowing access to sports fields outside of hours for recreational activities and ensuring green space provided amenities, as simple as benches and toilets, for all to benefit from. Embedding this within our cities can benefit children and adults alike. 

Alongside green space there is blue space. Cities built with water as part of their urban footprint. Exposure to blue settings can help mental wellbeing and similar to green spaces can work alongside to promote improved physical and mental health. I can’t help but think of water when walking through Sheffield, Manchester and London. The use of fountains and water structures is evident but not consistent throughout. Many cities have rivers/canals flowing through them and these are a great space to embrace activities – paddleboarding and kayaking but also creating inner city walks and natural environments. 

Opportunities to embed blue space in our cities comes not just from water structures but access to pathways alongside waterways for walking, cycling and similar activities and inside the waterways for kayaking and paddleboarding. Water retention in ponds and lakes can bring biodiversity into cities too. Just the general feel of being around water has a positive impact. 

And lastly we can embrace our sensors. We treat them when we eat – picking venues that have food that looks, smells and tastes good. So why not apply that same logic to the built environment. There are simple ways to bring to life areas. If I take my local village, there are sculptures on walkways, planted up herb gardens and wall murals (as opposed to graffiti). So take that wider into cities you could really create some to appease all our sensors. Thinking about noise levels and how they can be buffered. How can the sometimes “grey” of a city be transformed into vibrancy and colour and encouraging community gardens (like Springvale near me) to provide real opportunities to enhance each sense. 

So by making our cities embrace nature, embedding blue, green and sensory spaces within and thinking about the simple feel of the environment can truly enhance our mental and physical health. We now focus so much on wellbeing that the environment we spend the most time in really needs to embrace. Whether a developer, urban planner or a member of the community. Speaking up to make sure our urban world takes some huge leaps forward will leave a better legacy for future generations. 

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