7 simple ways to create healthy, happy neighbourhoods
By Laura B. Alvarez
Laura is the Regional Chair of the Urban Design Group and has been been published in the national and architectural press. She has worked in architectural practice and urban design consultancy in both Argentina and the UK.
She trained as an architect and urbanist in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and completed a PhD in Urban Design at the University of Nottingham's Department of Architecture and the Built Environment.
Modern life is proving more complex, tiresome and heavy-going than we imagined. We live under constant pressure: our environments and the technology we have developed seem to be evolving faster than we can keep up with, causing us stress, anxiety, depression and a whole range of other modern disorders. The way we consume, the food we eat and the forms of communication we use are all leading us to modern problems such as hoarding, obesity and loneliness.
A whole range of recent research shows that we could be happier and healthier if we made an effort to move more and connect with nature, if we could support each other more and if we start caring for our places and our communities. Design can help make it happen with simple solutions that trigger our human instincts in positive ways. Here are seven simple rules to help us create healthier, happier neighbourhoods.
1 - Make it human
It’s important to work out the proportions and scale of a place, so that people feel comfortable, safe and welcomed. People of all ages must be able to interact, so designers should create places by the street where people can linger: small front gardens are a good option.
Think about how children might reclaim the streets – and how to make the elderly and vulnerable feel safer, so that they can stay out for longer periods of time, talking with their neighbours. Having frequent casual conversations or sharing small assets with our neighbours is usually the first step towards developing closer social ties. In time, this results in wider social support systems.
Having a good, strong, trustworthy group of people around us is an essential part of human life, and it can help to bridge generational divides and fight loneliness and isolation. So designers should group or align houses to form street patterns that create opportunities to encounter neighbours.
A good example of this can be seen in the plan drawn out in 1818 for Savannah, Georgia – green squares and smaller backstreets give residents easy access to their streets, while motor traffic can flow without interruption down larger boulevards. A more modern example can be seen in the Trent Basin development in Nottingham, UK.
2 - Make it easy to move around
The most important user of the street is the pedestrian – people should be able to walk, or even skate or cycle safely to any location in the neighbourhood, by the shortest and most direct route possible.
These routes should be entertaining, interesting and fun, and offer a range of sensory experiences with different colours, sounds, smells and textures. This encourages people to walk more and depend less on their cars for short journeys.
People – particularly children – should have the freedom to speed up and slow down when cycling or skating, to make journeys more interesting, promoting changes in routines and behaviours.
Designers should create street patterns and shapes that make it easy to find the way around. In order to minimise stress and make navigation simple, routes should be visible and accessible, and every path should lead to a meaningful destination – so no dead ends. Cars are a necessity, so designers should consider the practicalities of car use and parking, but car-dominated environments must be strongly discouraged.
3 - Make places that change with the seasons
Neighbourhoods should be designed with an awareness of the seasons, including adaptive landscapes and natural elements. Introducing walls of climbing plants and colourful trees are simple ways to achieve environments that change with the seasons.
Landscaping must be considered as a way to control micro-climates, before investing in costly technology and design solutions. For example, using perennial trees, which die back during the colder months, can be used to to provide shade in summer while allowing sun in the winter.
4 - Make local food matter
Good design must consider all the parties involved in supplying and consuming food in the local area. Every resident should have an opportunity to be in direct contact with soil, engage in private and communal planting and grow their own food – activities which carry multiple physical and mental health benefits
Smart waste management should be a priority from the beginning. This means looking for opportunities to create shared waste disposal, storage and collection wherever possible.
Verges, planters and areas of grassland across the neighbourhood should be accessible to the public – and residents should be allowed to take ownership of unused or spare land to organise community activities that are good for the environment and local ecosystems, such as seed planting for bee pollination.
If landscaping is managed by private developers, then public, communal and private land should include as many edible species as possible, such as fruit trees, herbs and berries.
5 - Make places to share
All neighbourhood places must be designed with the capacity to host and invite a range of neighbouring and community activities within walking distance of homes. These places should be full of purpose and meaning, enriching the lives of the humans and animals who share the neighbourhood.
When places become part of our lives and occupy a place in our hearts, we are keener to protect them – and the people within them – by taking positive community action to ensure their maintenance and endurance; in short, we start to care more.
6 - Make places that people understand
Every street and public place should carry a strong identity. Places should be named in relation to their character and without complexity, to allow everyone to identify them.
Landscape and natural elements are powerful tools for this purpose. For example, “Cherry Lane” would be associated with a narrow shared street where most houses have cherry trees in their front gardens; that name would be easy to remember. Smell can also be a powerful design tool, oranges, linden, jasmine and other aromatic species can help people identify with places and create long-lasting memories.
7 - Make places where people want to belong
Places should also allow residents to develop regular routines, which create personal and collective memories associated with life in the neighbourhood. This allows people to add social meaning and value to their local places, creating local history through their own communal life experiences.
A person’s personal and social identity is closely related to their local environment. It’s crucial to manage the scale and character of areas, so that these feel intimate to the residents. People who feel they belong to a place are more likely to develop more positive attitudes towards their environments and their neighbours.
Everyone should have communal land – or other assets, such as shared energy supplies – a short walk away from their homes, giving everyone the opportunity to actively care and relate closely to their neighbours.
Being happier and healthier is actually simpler than it might appear. We just need to remember what being human is all about: being able to move safely around our environments; being aware of the seasons in order to resource our food; sharing places that we understand and having a community where we belong.