Urban Design for a healthy city

When it comes to urban planning and design, most people think in terms of physical elements like buildings and streets. Or bus lanes, apartment blocks, pocket parks and stadiums.

But less obvious outcomes such as health are often overlooked or poorly understood. The way our cities are designed can have a huge impact on people’s physical and mental wellbeing, from encouraging exercise to reducing loneliness.

That’s why the answer to making New Zealand’s cities the most liveable in the world could be thinking of urban design as a form of healthcare, ensuring developments are created with real health benefits in mind.

Aotearoa’s cities are planned to grow. We have the choice of what we want this to be like.

It’s imperative we adopt the right approach to city planning, so as our cities grow we avoid paying the cost of poor planning for generations to come.

Safe spaces

The government’s recent National Policy Statement on Urban Development is a start, mandating zoning to allow six-storey apartments close to transport nodes and removing the requirement for a minimum amount of car parking in new developments.

This helps bring density, better site planning to allow more outdoor space and a shift from people being dependent on their cars for all trips. A high percentage of our daily car trips are less than five kilometres. Such trips are easy to undertake by walking or cycling and would give us the daily exercise that we need to reverse our increasingly sedentary lives.

People are now coming around to the benefits of living in a walkable city. In Auckland, more apartment buildings are now being consented than houses, and unlike five years ago they’re not just focused on the central business district – many are found across the region.

The way our cities are designed also has real implications for children’s wellbeing. Recent studies demonstrate that time spent outdoors has a major impact on the onset and development of myopia in children. Children living above the seventh floor in apartment buildings, further from the outdoors, have been shown to have an earlier onset of myopia.

This doesn’t mean we should ban taller buildings (or devices), but we might think about how we design family accommodation, considering the size and placement of units within buildings and creating safe spaces for play outdoors.

However, there’s no point in building thousands of new apartments (or any new homes) if they don’t connect to where people need to be.

Real health-focused design relies on making more of our underused city precincts, instead of continuing to build in car-dependent developments far from centres of employment and public transport nodes.

The redevelopment of central Manukau to provide a wider range of uses, with high-and medium-density housing appearing around offices, shops, train and bus stations, is an example of the move towards more compact ways of living.

Preventable diseases

Why is this kind of intensification – in the right place – better for our health and wealth?

It’s not just about making traffic flow better. Studies have shown more walkable (or bikeable) cities where people are closer to work and public transport can support mental health by, among other things, reducing the stress of driving and commuting.

It also creates neighbourhoods with more to do and places to socialise, improving access to employment and encouraging exercise. Moving just 5% of short urban car trips to active transport like cycling could also result in 116 fewer deaths each year through increased physical activity.

This isn’t just an “Auckland” approach. Good design thinking at the right time can save all of us healthcare dollars that would otherwise be spent on treating preventable lifestyle diseases or dealing with traffic accidents.

Vision Zero is another approach that’s seen massive health benefits overseas. Waka Kotahi and Auckland Council have both adopted this approach recently, aiming to reduce deaths on our roads or public transport systems to zero.

It works on the understanding that human error is inevitable, so focusing on driving behaviour alone is not enough. Instead, it reduces speed, separates roads from cycleways and creates other measures to make accidents less likely to occur or cause fatalities.

When Sweden introduced this approach, it reduced accidents by 55% in the decade to 2015. However, human error remains one of the factors that’s impossible to control. Our objective should be to take more people off the roads entirely. Put simply: less reliance on roads means fewer deaths.

The Dutch example shows the good that can result from a simple planning decision.

In the 1970s, 400 children were killed on Dutch roads each year. The government committed to getting children to school safely, and a vast expansion of its national network of bike paths was the result.

Not only did road deaths plummet by 6,500 per year, but the Dutch are also now living six months longer as a result of the fact they’re riding 30% greater distances.

The Dutch are also amongst the happiest in the world. Think about what might be achieved by taking a deliberate health-centred approach to all our urban neighbourhoods encompassing not only transport but every aspect of how our cities are put together.

That also includes thinking of building sustainably as not just good for the environment, but good for our health.

Sustainable design

The World Health Organisation has identified climate change as a serious health issue, with the potential to increase respiratory illnesses and even cardiovascular disease.

Respiratory diseases such as asthma and COPD already affect more than 700,000 New Zealanders, costing $7 billion a year and causing nearly 3,000 deaths. This is why we can’t focus on decreasing air pollution alone via technology such as e-vehicles, public transport or cycle paths.

Designing cities that are good for our health long-term means we need to look at the interplay of these factors and mandate more sustainable design and building.

The response to covid-19 showed what can happen when everyone is willing to trade off some aspects of the status quo in the name of our collective health and well-being.

Cities like Paris and London are now accelerating cycleways, low traffic neighbourhoods and removing car parking to encourage more connected lives because that is what is being demanded. If we’re not in this game, Aotearoa’s cities will lose out.

If we treat the growth of our cities as a public health opportunity, we’ll realise just how much we stand to benefit from better urban planning and good design.

The trade-off for fewer car parks and greaterintensification is the opportunity to live longer, healthier lives with more time for family, or hobbies that boost our physical and mental wellbeing.

No one retires to the city for their health – but if we manage things right, they just might.

Ben van Bruggen / Alistair Ray Jasmax