Perhaps the dream of a quarter-acre block spoke to our Australian sense of space – a space to kick a ball around, a space to dance around the sprinkler on a quintessential Australian summer day, a space where bindis were the enemy and cordial fixed it all, a space where you knew the neighbours and they knew you, and hiking to the nearby shops for a bag of mixed lollies was high adventure.
But somehow we grew and the thread that connected us, all of a sudden, didn't.
Community is one of the main reasons I never moved out of Annandale. As a family, we traded location for our ‘dolls’ house because we couldn’t unshackle ourselves from the ‘intangibles’ that made us constantly feel that we were part of something bigger. What tied us to this place was the acknowledgment that in fact the ‘everyday of our lives’ was more important than the ‘special days of our lives’.
While views differ on the exact nature of the link between urban sprawl and public health, the fact that healthier communities typically have strong, deep ‘social strands’ which tie them together is well established yet often ignored. These multigenerational social strands contain the ‘stuff’ of daily life and mean that people not only genuinely know other people, but also share different aspects of their lives with each other.
It is time we take this dialogue beyond architecture and beyond city-shaping to consider issues such as obesity, social isolation, inclusion, inter-generational care, loneliness, mental health, societal cohesion and diversity. How might design propagate change that has the potential to cure, restore and regenerate?
The greatest examples of strong, vibrant communities from around the world arguably all emerged, by design and/or by default, before the invention of the motor vehicle. Covering long distances was far less convenient, which necessitated that individual communities encapsulate all the requirements of life – places of shelter, work and play.
The spread of car ownership is intrinsically tied to the spread of suburbia, and the ability to move further and separate the parts of our everyday clearly correlates to worsening health outcomes. The car unshackled us from place and use and, unwittingly, from each other and life to create patterns of isolation. The typically car-dominated, low density, dormitory suburb typified and arguably still very much typifies the Australian dream. But this dream has made us more stressed, unhealthy, lonely and disconnected as a community.
Design for Serendipity
Knowing very well that what we build around us affects how we live and therefore directly impacts our health, we continue to build cities that are planned to dissolve the connective tissue that binds us all together by, for example, trapping each of us in our respective silos – in the form of our cars and homes. We have also become quite adept at very deliberately compartmentalising the different aspects and activities of our lives. For instance, we meticulously plan the places we go to work, separate from the places we go to for recreation, and the places where we live.
We however have been, since the advent of the car, stretching the societal glue to an extent that is all but non-existent in most places. We drive to get milk, we drive to the park, we drive to work and we drive our kids to school. We drive ourselves everywhere.
And the reason urban sprawl created is so dangerous to the connective tissue needed to create community is that it denies serendipity – the serendipity of walking down my street to get milk and encountering the neighbours on the way, who ask themselves how Susanne could have forgotten the milk again!
The serendipity of saying hello to Sam the shopkeeper who slaps you on the back and remarks how much the kids have grown and offers you advice on teenagers and how to grow better tomatoes. The serendipity of seeing a friend who looks a bit down, and inviting them over for dinner. The serendipity of connection at every human level.
An important factor in the design of a community is proximity and walkability. Encouraging people to walk is not about increasing the number of steps that one might otherwise miss but rather about increasing the opportunities to connect with other people and hence create more of that connective glue that holds communities together. Low density, with commensurate low amenity as a consequence, stretches our urban frameworks and connection to each other; isolating and disconnecting.
But walkability isn’t just about scale and proximity. As important as these factors are, there are many other elements, some more subtle than others, that come into play. For instance, tree cover, landscaping, street lighting, outdoor furniture, and the interaction and overlaps between vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian paths are all elements that we as humans register and that give us cues about the environment that surrounds us and how to navigate it.
I was recently in Vancouver, Canada, which in many ways presented a wonderful example of walkability and visual connection to nature, and hence wellbeing. It is a great embodiment of a city that is super dense with tall buildings and that yet offers frames of picturesque bodies of water and majestic snowy mountains in the distance from multiple vantage points off every other street corner. What makes Vancouver particularly intriguing is that it goes against planners’ orthodox attempts to play second fiddle to surrounding nature by laying low. It is design that is mindful of context and that takes into account the urban experience.
Building Blue Zones
National Geographic in 2017 ran a story about the common factors shared across some of the world’s happiest places (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/11/worlds-happiest-places/). The article included a grin-inspiring photo of a group of young men diving from a 5m high platform into a harbour in Copenhagen. The caption beneath that expressive image read:
“A built environment that invites physical activity helps explain why Danes have among the lowest obesity rates in the world. The country frequently claims the top spot in the annual World Happiness Report, a reflection of its government-supported education, health care, and financial safety net.”
A few years ago a wonderfully inspiring client passed me two sheets of neatly typed text that contained the story of the ‘Roseto effect’. It felt like a piece of wisdom that had been handed down from one generation to the next. I read it over and over, wondering how we could seemingly have the solution to our own destiny in our hands yet somehow never manage to quite achieve it. Perhaps we can’t believe that the solution could be so simple.
Named after a town in Pennsylvania, the Roseto effect refers to a phenomenon whereby a close-knit community of Italian immigrants experienced substantially lower rates of heart disease compared to other towns in nearby locations. Three generations of Rosetans would sit around the same table to share a family meal, almost all men were part of one or more community groups, and they often gathered in each other’s kitchens to debate world matters over a card game.
A 50-year study of the Roseta community revealed that as they settled into their newfound lifestyles, got wealthier, moved to live in separate houses, bought cars, intermingled with other communities, and gradually abandoned their Mediterranean social structure, communal lifestyle and living habits, the incidence of heart disease in their community increased from half the rate of those in neighbouring towns to more or less the same level. It only took twenty short years for this dramatic change to take place. By the 1980s the rate of heart disease tragically matched that of the US. The social glue had dissolved.
The researchers attributed the people of Roseto’s initially lower heart disease rates to their lower levels of stress, the importance they placed on cohesion within their community, and the relative social equity. Simply put, it wasn’t diet, family history or location that mattered, it was the formation of community.
Malcolm Gladwell sums up the case of the people of Roseto as follows:
“In transplanting the paesani culture of southern Italy to the hills of eastern Pennsylvania, the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world. The Rosetans were healthy because of where they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills.”
- 'Outliers: The Story of Success' by Malcolm Gladwell
Looking at those unique pockets on our planet where people tend to lead healthier, happier and longer lives, we find that these so-called ‘blue zones’ are exemplars of healthy living and that it is their day-to-day living habits that mark their health outcomes.
And this is why we should strive to affect the way people live at a more fundamental level by changing the very building blocks of the places they live. This means making healthy living practices an integral part of people’s daily lives.
It’s clear that the way we design where we live has a direct effect on our mental, social and physical health. It affects our ability to engage in the ordinary daily things that constitute our lives – our houses, our work, and our daily needs. We need to stop removing the ‘friction points’ out of our lives and in fact increase the ‘bump points’, because how our setting is put together affects the way we come together.
Local, communal, tribal should be the mantra.
Susanne Pini principal and national director of Mixed-Use + Workplace at HDR