Planning for Healthy Living

It is common today to talk about health only in terms of physical health. The “Active Living” program is often considered the solution to all health problems. In fact, even as cities enact “Active Living” programs to solve obesity, they discover the programs are ineffectual if the society is fragmented or the individual is marginalized. Social health is the foundation for physical health. This has serious implications for planning and urban design. A healthy city must have a healthy social immune system.

Social immune system

Humans are social beings. Contact with family, friends and social circles is not just pleasurable, it is essential. The quality and quantity of social interaction and sense of belonging strongly influence physical and mental health.

Circles of friends and familiars form a “social immune system” to buffer stress, improve coping, and protect health. Social support prevents isolation, improves psychological well-being through being valued, receiving signs of love, and knowledge that help is there if needed. Integration in a face-to-face social network produces positive psychological states, fosters self-esteem, self-assurance, sense of security and well-being. Social circles maintain, protect, promote and restore health.

Planning implications

Suburban environments do not provide sufficient opportunity for positive social life. We saw evidence of this in ‘50s when depression became common among stay-at-home housewives. Now we see it in the prevalence of psychological and social problems suffered by children, youth and elders that echo symptoms of social isolation. Dangerous, fragmented inner city neighborhoods exhibit similar symptoms of ill health, related to the isolation of individuals in a fragmented built, and social fabric. High-rise housing has been associated with greater rates of juvenile delinquency, greater feelings of alienation, and more depression among young mothers.

Healthy Urban Fabric

To support a healthy immune system, we must rebuild the compact, walkable, mixed use, connected built urban fabric characteristic of traditional towns. Here, people’s paths cross in multiple situations – on the way to work or school, at the market or running errands, at a “Third Place” or relaxing -- and in different social contexts – alone, with family members, friends or business associates. Community members’ normal everyday lives overlap. Meetings may lead to introductions that expand social networks. This promotes resilience in the community’s social immune system.

Active transportation by foot, bike and transit, and places for active recreation are important parts of this mix. Equally important is the availability of community squares that support positive face-to-face social interaction between all community members. When located at the heart of a mixed-use neighborhood, with a farmers market surrounded by shops serving daily needs and a residential population overlooking the square, these places are powerful catalysts in building community, and the social support systems that protect health. As Martin Buber declared, “The architects must be set the task of also building for human contact, building surroundings that invite meeting and centers that shape meeting.”

If we want to improve physical and mental health, reduce social pathology, and strengthen community “social immune systems”, then we must rebuild our sprawling suburbs and inner city neighborhoods so that they support the development of face-to-face interaction and community in traffic-calmed streets and lively neighborhood squares.

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