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The impacts of neighbourhood design and surroundings on public health

Key points

  • Non-communicable diseases such as obesity and diabetes are on the rise globally

  • Mental health episodes and the number of those suffering with depression continue to increase, despite increased awareness

  • One’s immediate surroundings impact decision-making processes, as well as constrain or promote opportunities

  • Housing developments should implement measures to improve surroundings and increase neighbourhood cohesion to positively impact health and well-being

“In an age of global markets and instantaneous international communication, it’s easy to assume that where we live and how we interact with our physical surroundings is becoming less important to our personal fulfilment and societal contribution. In fact, the opposite is the case—contact with nature and contact with our neighbours is consistently shown to underpin our health and happiness.” - Graham Duxbury (Review of “Designing the Compassionate City”).

In 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that 1.9 billion adults and a further 380 million children worldwide were overweight or obese. Most of the world’s population now live in countries where more people die from the complications of obesity than they do from malnutrition. Likewise there are now over 500 million sufferers of diabetes worldwide. Furthermore, 1 in 4 people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point during their lives and 300 million people, of all ages, are currently suffering with depression (WHO 2017). However, significant campaigns and interventions over the years to promote healthy eating and exercise have made little impact to curtail these increases. It is commonly acknowledged that a significant behavioural change must occur in order for us to lose weight by becoming more active and eating healthily. These decisions are impacted heavily by our immediate surroundings (Lindstrom 2008).

Over the past two centuries, our surroundings and how we interact has undergone drastic changes. Rapid urbanisation is one of the most important demographic processes for health and social behaviour. Understanding how these new urban environments promote or demote healthy behaviours is essential for government, researchers, and health practitioners.

Social capital, sometimes defined as the free flow of trust, information and cooperation that forms within a social network and influences group behaviour, has seen a recent resurgence in the literature as a potentially important aspect of overall neighbour health and wellbeing. However, social capital is context-bound and therefore cannot be used as a “blueprint” for improving health and housing outcomes. Albeit, it may be an important indicator and framework for what constitutes health-supporting environments and achieving community action for health promotion (Erikkson 2011).

We know our surroundings impact our mental and physical health. Access to green spaces, shops and restaurants that provide healthy food choices, sporting facilities and amenities that facilitate a healthy lifestyle, such as the promotion of cycling or walking as a way of commuting, can have a significant positive impact on our health and wellbeing. But, urbanisation, living in cramped, built-up and sometimes unsafe areas, with easy access to fast and cheap junk food, has facilitated increasingly unhealthy lifestyles. Likewise, the spatial design of housing developments can make it difficult for connections to be made between neighbours. Communication with those in your immediate surroundings are important for support networks and can positively influence one’s mental health.

How can regulations influence the design of housing developments and neighbourhoods to promote healthier lifestyles? How can communities be built to increase interactions with neighbours and hence positively impact mental well-being? It should also be acknowledged that appropriate infrastructure and employment opportunities should be considered when designing new developments.

Polygeia is working with the Royal Society of Public Health commissioners, Ed Morrow and Caitlin Turner to assess the impact of housing development design and surroundings on health and well-being in the hope of identifying and developing potential guidelines that could influence new development design and help to improve current estates and neighbourhoods.

Further Reading

Eriksson, M. (2011). "Social capital and health – implications for health promotion." Global Health Action 4: 10.3402/gha.v3404i3400.5611

Lindstrom, M. (2008). “Buyology: How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy is Wrong.” Royal Society of Public Health; Health on the High street.

About the author

I enjoy travel, adventure, ultra running, cycling, music, books and tea (milk no sugar)


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