With more than half of the global population living in urban areas, there is a growing concern about the connection between the built environment and health.
Urban planners and architects around the world are linking the traditional notions of planning, including land use, transport, community facilities, housing, parks and open space, with health concerns such as physical activity, public safety, healthy eating, the natural environment and the mental health of citizens.
Spanish urban planner Ildefons Cerdà was ahead of his time when he designed Eixample, a district in Barcelona, which was constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries and provided improved living conditions for its inhabitants by incorporating extensive sunlight, natural ventilation and more open green public areas.
The project divided the district into blocks of a standard size using strict building regulations that only allowed them to be built up on two sides, and only to a limited height. That left open spaces or gardens in between to guarantee houses had healthy amounts of natural light and ventilation. In addition, housing blocks were oriented so that all apartments received sunshine during the day.
Angled street corners, determined by steam trams’ long turning radius, widened the streets at every intersection. This improved visibility and ensured more fluid traffic in all directions. However, as with many of the other provisions laid out in the plan, trams were never installed and the project was never fully completed.
Originally, each district was slated to feature 20 blocks, including shops and community services, and each block was to have at least 800 square metres of open space. However, buildings were built much higher than the planned heights, and currently the blocks are enclosed, with very few inner green spaces left over.
While most of the city's inner courtyards today are occupied by car parks, workshops or shopping centres, the grid pattern with its distinctive octagonal blocks remains as a hallmark of Barcelona’s Eixample and the city is trying to reintroduce Cerdà's idea for green public spaces between buildings, aiming to make the city healthier.
The design of cities is having a huge impact on human health. Earlier this year, the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure reported that only about half of NSW's population gets the recommended 30 mins of daily exercise and that 25 per cent of schoolchildren and 52.5 per cent of adults are overweight, while 19 per cent are obese.
Strategies proposed to combat these problems and create healthier cities include building housing close to places of employment, services and amenities so people can walk there everyday; improving urban design in city centres and neighbourhoods; and building integrated transport networks that include active transport within and between centres. Accessibility is also critical to a healthy community, particularly for the elderly, the young or the disabled.
Concerns about rising levels of obesity and cardiovascular disease have led to a considerable amount of attention being paid to how the built environment can be designed to create more opportunities for physical activity. Building environments that encourage walking and cycling can have direct health benefits and can help people lose weight.
Creating new passive and active open spaces close to work and home, including walking and cycling facilities; and improving roads and infrastructure features such as street lighting and end of trip facilities help to build more liveable cities.
Air quality and noise control are also very important to achieve healthy cities. Green urban spaces and street trees play an important role to improve air quality and fight against pollution and climate change.
High levels of noise from roads, rail, air traffic, industry, construction, neighbourhood activities and other sources can have significant health consequences, including hearing impairment and loss, loss of sleep and the potential for physiological, mental health, and performance impacts.
There are a number of tools urban planners can use to minimize the harmful effects of noise, such as effective land-use planning that discourages sensitive land uses near highways and other noise sources, and promotes the use of open space separating roads from residential developments.
Not only should public spaces be taken into account, but planners should also focus on the quality of residential buildings and houses, the places where children play, and other factors that may expose citizens to pollutants and significant health risks such as lung disease, lead poisoning, cancer, reproductive impacts, birth defects, headaches and more. These risks are associated with nearby land uses, previous activities on a site, building materials, housing quality, and crowding.
Recent studies have demonstrated that direct contact with vegetation or nature leads to enhanced mental health and psychological development. With other data showing that depression and other mental health disorders will account for some of the world’s greatest health challenges in the coming years, increasing green areas in city centres can be the solution to these problems.