In our drive to meet targets and create dense urban areas, what kind of places are we creating? As we enter a new decade and face unprecedented change, evidence suggests that our built environment can pose a significant health risk.
A crowded and anxious future
More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and this could reach 66% by 2050. Densification can outstrip our ability to provide the necessary infrastructure, resulting in cramped and polluted places that trigger health issues. For example, cities have higher rates of most mental health problems compared to rural areas, including almost 40% higher risk of depression.
Health problems can also be triggered by technology and research shows that overuse of the internet can cause mental health problems and that the obsessive use of social media can cause anxiety. The proliferation of smartphones is dramatic with the number of users potentially growing close to four billion by 2021.
The coincidence of these factors is unique to this period and gives rise to some new challenges.
We are adept at creating urban areas that are increasingly mixed-use and dense, places that are teeming with things to see and do and ‘activated’ 24/7. In fact, ‘activation’ is often seen as a key planning objective.
This has occurred alongside our growing attachment to smart devices creating a world where our brains are almost permanently stimulated and where it is difficult to be ‘off-line’ and ‘present’.
Indoors and Isolated
Furthermore, and for the first time, we spend most of our lives indoors. Americans spend around 90% of their day indoors with time divided between bed, transportation, work and leisure. This is a concern not least because we miss out on fresh air and natural daylight for Vitamin D but also because loneliness is common and unhealthy.
Our buildings can make us sick
To compound matters, under the influence of central heating and in the absence of drafts, cleaning fluids, paint solvents and furniture fumes can create a damaging mix of VOCs at home and work. Poor unnatural lighting is also a factor and according to the NHS, sick building syndrome can happen anywhere and most commonly in open-plan offices.
Planning and design must evolve
So, we must address the toxic mix that urbanisation, densification and technification are creating. Being conscious of the ‘downstream’ health impacts that the built environment can create is the first step. We must also ensure, alongside planning for a climate positive society, that health and well beings is central to decisions. The following are important innovations.
Biophilia focuses on our innate attraction and genetic connection with nature built up over hundreds of thousands of years. Biophilic design is believed to reduce stress and anxiety and support the bodies healing processes through crafting environments where natural light, water and fresh air abound, where the movement of greenery soothes, where the inside and outside merge and where buildings incorporate natural shapes, colours and materials. Powerfully, urban greening can also counteract the effects of climate change.
Neuroscience can now look inside our minds and establish how we experience places. It uses real data which ‘maps’ how our environment affects our senses, stimulates our brain and evokes a biological response.
A new wave of neuro-design is emerging where shape, form and even beauty are used to boost our emotional states and energy levels.
Planning for ‘well beings’
Planners have sometimes prioritised buildings and infrastructure over their inhabitants. However, the current challenges indicate a new form of ‘planning for well beings’ is required incorporating biophilic and neuro-design.
Policy must now evolve to provide a new framework for master planning, urban design and architecture.
Developing area wide ‘Green & Blueprints’ to determine what is required is crucial. Positive initiatives are emerging like the ‘urban greening factor’ in the draft London Plan and the Capital being made the first National Park City in 2019.
Yet huge pressures face those involved in our built environment and change must be economically viable. Treating what’s necessary as ‘critical infrastructure’ and including this in development plans should be explored, whilst taking care not to over-burden a development sector struggling to make projects viable.
A recent report by British Land highlights that annually the NHS in England spends around £11.6 billion on mental health services and the wider costs to the economy could exceed £105 billion. If poor urban environments are partly to blame, then upstream improvements could generate enormous downstream savings. One suggestion to fund infrastructure is creating ‘Urban well beings Zones’ to retain business rates growth, leverage TIF and combine this with existing powers.
Innovation like this, fostered by evolved planning policy, could bring about a new era in our built environment and help create places for ‘well beings’.
 Neil E. Klepeis and others / published by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants (2001).
 Greater London Authority, Draft New London Plan (2019)
 British Land and WPI Economics, A Design for Life (2018)
Shaun is an Executive Director at Nexus Planning and has a wealth of experience spanning approximately 25 years of advising both private and public sector clients. He has run several planning teams and his expertise covers the formulation of masterplans and supporting the delivery of major complex developments. He is passionate about creating places where human beings thrive.