Human behaviour is intrinsically influenced by our surroundings, and as a nation predominantly made up of city-dwellers, our urban environment contributes a major part to making us who we are. In a country where one in five people are said to experience symptoms of mental illness in a given year, it is important to look to all facets of our environment to explore ways to improve the Australian psyche.

In a roundtable discussion between Chris Maher (the National Portfolio Leader of Urban Development), David McCarroll and Jason Preston (Design Principals from Hames Sharley’s Brisbane studio), we uncovered some of the tools used by designers of the built environment to enhance health and wellbeing.

The World Health Organisation defines a healthy city as:

”…one that is continually creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources which enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and in developing to their maximum potential.”

How can the health and wellness benefits of a place be measured?

There are measurable ways to analyse what makes a healthy community. David McCarroll says this is something he’s experienced in his work in various developments throughout Australia and Asia.

“For human beings in the modern world, a lot can be said for the impact of well-designed urban spaces in terms of the mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing of people,” he explains.

There is, however, no universally used wellness index.

“If there was, it would certainly increase the market value of particular areas,” says Jason Preston. “We could, for instance, give something a rating out of five, depending on its wellness index.”

In New South Wales, the Department of Health has created a document called the Healthy Urban Development Checklist, which hopes to create an improved dialogue between the planning and health sectors. The checklist measures an urban environment’s healthiness based on its access to:

  • healthy food
  • physical activity
  • housing
  • transport and physical connectivity
  • quality employment
  • community safety and security
  • public open space
  • social infrastructure
  • social cohesion and social connectivity
  • environment and health.

Chris Maher notes that form of codification was undertaken when he was involved in the CityLife project in Sydney.

“We had trips to various parts of Sydney, with professors from the University of Technology Sydney,” he says. “The idea was to go to a place and rate it, and analyse what visitors liked about it. This data included things like how many trees you could see, how many footpaths there were, was there a park, was it windy or quiet, was there a friendly atmosphere.

“Of course, many of these measures were subjective but we were trying to come up with a real-time tool to measure the quality of places. It’s a bold aspiration and that’s why there’s no one solution.”

Professor Billie Giles-Corti has delved extensively into research on this subject, having created the Healthy Liveable Cities Research Group at RMIT. Research undertaken by the group includes optimising apartment design, healthy transport options and accessibility along with liveability studies on a national, state and city level. The results form a great resource for those in the industry.

What are some of the best places to live in the world?

There are many ways to measure wellbeing in urban design; metrics such as the Mercer Quality of Living Index, the Global Liveability Report by The Economist and the TimeOut City Life Index, to name just a few, only reinforce that statement.

Australian cities Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth top some of these lists, the common reasons being:

  • the cultural scene
  • stability
  • security and safety
  • access to healthcare
  • access to education
  • the natural environment
  • climate
  • infrastructure, such as roads, public transport, energy, water, telecommunications

Other cities that commonly top these lists include Vienna, Zurich, Vancouver and Copenhagen.

What can design practices do to achieve wellbeing?

When asked about Hames Sharley’s approach to creating healthy, liveable environments, Chris, Jason and David all suggest that the key is research and application.

Jason and David reveal that they take the opportunity, when possible, to dwell in a place and understand it in terms of its attraction and character. Serious considerations include the history of the place, why people choose to live there, and what they are about. Both suggest that these things are best observed in person.

Chris adds that he often uses a four pillared methodological approach. By understanding the physical environment, the social environment, the governance and the economic drivers a holistic view of an area is achievable and, once built upon, will enable the community to flourish.

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