Can We Improve Wellbeing in Cities?

Though it’s clear living in cities can have both negative and positive impacts on physical health – with the overcrowding, pollution, and lack of green space yet comes the maximised access to healthcare and proliferation of support networks – I am interested, as last year’s ‘Cities, health and well-being’ conference was, to look beyond this simplistic notion of wellness and consider the emotional wellbeing tied to happiness and satisfaction and how this may be affected by city living. We lack an understanding, as academic Philip Morrison has outlined, of the ‘geography of happiness’.

Some think that cities provide the variety needed to stimulate and animate us, others believe it is a case of overstimulation, causing stress or emotional detachment. There is – unsurprisingly – evidence to support that depression tends to be more prevalent in cities; complaints are lodged at the door of unhealthy work-life balances, high-rise living, limited open green space and apparent lack of community.

I have noted before the need to engage with nature on a regular basis – and there is indeed a widely supported link between green space and positive mental health. This is not to say we should all move to the countryside, though. It’s about something far subtler and more workable than even the ‘Garden Cities’ of the early 20th century, designed from scratch specifically for wellbeing by limiting population and maximising open space. Le Corbusier also tried to build cities designed for healthier living, but his plans meant whitewashing what was already there. Such stringent rules can work against what they are trying to achieve. I’m a strong believer that the right kind of support for green spaces, waterways and green infrastructure in the city allows the best of both worlds: to engage with the calming influence of nature as well as enjoy the activity of the city.

Recently, the New Economics Foundation (nef) produced a report on well-being patterns in the UK, showing that people who live in rural areas have a higher rate of wellbeing (happiness, satisfaction with their life) than those in urban areas. Specifically, the highest levels of wellbeing (41%) are found on the small islands off the British Isles as well as the Northern/Southern coastal extremities of country, whilst the lowest levels of wellbeing (20%) are found in London, Luton and Reading. So do we need the space, the quiet, the sea to be content? Those may be things I dream of whilst at my desk, but I believe living the rest of my life on the Shetland Islands may not ensure permanent satisfaction. Still, different people adapt to different places, and then the familiarity becomes comforting and satisfying in itself – and hard to leave.

map

A sense of community is promoted as one of the keys to social wellbeing – but is this too stifling in a village, or too disparate in a city? New types of living in the city – such as apartment blocks and high-rise estates – may affect the type of community interaction that occurs; but community dynamics rely on far more factors, including the social structures set in place like resident associations or neighbourhood centres. There is no reason why a strong feeling of community is unlikely to emerge in a large metropolis. Peter Marcuse recently praised the ‘Occupy Sandy’ initiative in New York, noting the way that people helped one another was: ‘an expression of solidarity: it says, essentially, in this place, this city, at this time, there are no strangers. We are a community, we help one another without being asked… we are all parts of one whole.’ Though this unity may have emerged in a time of crisis, it shows that cities are not incapable of a powerful sense of togetherness.

Occupy Sandy

Another social activity strongly tied to the idea of wellbeing is the participation in decision-making in environmental and local affairs. This is certainly not automatically more feasible in small rural communities than cities. At least in the UK, there are numerous structures in place to enable this civic empowerment, but we must always ensure – wherever the community – that this participation is meaningful and not tokenistic.

Rural and urban life I think is too different to be compared; as the percentage of the world population living in cities continues to rise, the question now is more likely what kind of city encourages wellbeing? I would like to see an investigation in to the varying levels of wellbeing between different cities, to understand places that enhance and maximise the opportunities and benefits of urban living. The recent trend for ranking ‘liveable cities’, however, often glosses over many key aspects, complexities and subjectivities.

Moving beyond vital infrastructure for physical health often taken for granted in developed cities, including accessibility to basic services (what we might term ‘objective wellbeing’), we can think of more subtle – but still crucial – ways to support holistic wellbeing in the contemporary city.

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As I recently discussed, pedestrian-friendly cities – those places which boast ‘walkability’ – encourage greater use of the public realm and result in more social interaction and enjoyment of civic space. Equally, supporting and enhancing access to greenery and nature is crucial to overcoming the challenges to wellbeing presented by a large urban centre. Furthermore, if urban wellbeing is to be enhanced, it is crucial that the clear benefits of city living – including access to a rich variety of culture – should be fully supported and nurtured rather than forgotten or diminished. Cities also need to maximise on their community initiatives and support networks, as well as opportunities for empowerment and participation; London, though its size may present challenges, benefits from a concentration of wonderful organisations working with the city’s communities to improve lives and places.

Many have claimed that wellbeing is increased by a strong place identity. I believe this notion of place identity has at times been exploited and created by top-down branding efforts for economic benefit; an identity of place which is created collaboratively with the local community, however, holds far more resonance. As more people become involved in civic decision-making, participatory planning and creative interaction, so the ownership of place and space will engender a lasting sense of local pride.

Happiness and satisfaction will always be personal and subjective, as well as vary from day to day – so it is of course difficult to measure wellbeing. What’s more, we cannot anchor wellbeing to place alone – place itself is shaped by the people in it. I do believe, however, and have tried to highlight here, that there are ways in which the people designing and managing cities can support fuller, more active, democratic and creative lives of citizens.  Of course the rest of the work is down to us.

The ‘Cities, health and well-being’ conference put forward the power of wellbeing as a point around which to rethink city development and identify more sensitive and intuitive ways of intervening in cities. My only addition to this would be to stress that, more than ‘intervention’, truly sustainable and beneficial efforts will be collaborative and work with citizens to better understand what makes a happier and healthier place.

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