What makes a healthy place?

By Hunter Design

In 2022, we embarked on an ambitious, global research project that took us right the way around the world. From Copenhagen and New York to the far-flung reaches of Asia and Polynesia, our strategy team travelled with a singular question in mind: what makes a great place?

The journey involved spending time in eight cities and six continents. We spoke to placemakers, architects, community members, local residents, and more.

Four core themes emerged, common to all eight places. Spanning global health, definitions of luxury, emotional magnetism, and physical interactivity, this article focuses on the first, and arguably the most important of these in a ‘post-pandemic’ world - health.

Today, the buzzwords of ‘wellbeing’, ‘wellness’, ‘sustainability’, ‘eco’, and ‘regenerative’ lay heavily on the imperatives of developers and placemakers.

All around the world, they are charged with the questions: Will this place be good for people? Will this place be good for the planet?

Of course, these two questions are asking different things.

However, in recent years their interconnectivity has become ever more apparent: the joint human and environmental benefits of installing greenery are better understood; mobility has become an issue of saving the planet as well as progressing the human; and the language of ‘wellbeing’ and ‘welfare’ has been applied just as much to the natural world as it has us.

All around the world, developers, architects, housebuilders, urban planners, and placemakers are rising to the challenge.

Their task? It’s nothing short of saving the world – from public health crises, and from climate disaster.

In this article we posit five factors for how places around the world are building health – both personal and environmental – into the DNA of their designs.

1. Mobility:

If ever there was a sector that unites the fates of human and planetary health, it’s mobility. Today transport accounts for around 30% of the world’s carbon emissions, and as we stand on the brink of climate crisis, that needs to change quickly.

Copenhagen is a great example of how the simplest solutions can be the most effective. Next to its reputation for quality baked goods and beautiful harbour houses, the city is well known for its active cycling culture. As of 2021, around 40% of all trips in the Danish city were made by bicycle, which is in part facilitated by its vast network of cycle paths.

What makes Copenhagen’s cycle network different is that the paths are in-built into the city’s infrastructural DNA – never just tacked onto existing roads as an afterthought.

Robert Martin, Head of Mobility at JAJA Architects in Denmark, presides over the future of the city’s transport network. In his words, “The healthy body and healthy city go hand-in-hand. One of the great things about getting a city cycling is that you have a fitter population, simply through passive exercise.”

Indeed, a concept as simple as designing a ‘healthy city’ can ensure that the right plans and cultural principles are embedded from the get go.

2. Post-pandemic wellness

We are not quite living in a post-pandemic world, and yet much of our technologies, habits, and behaviours already look considerably different to how they did four years ago. In particular, it’s clear that the global public health crisis has renewed societal interest in individual health.

While these interests were firmly in place before 2020, our collective experience of the pandemic has added nuance to the way we view health: ‘social distancing’ has entered our vocabulary; personal hygiene and public cleanliness have become a priority.

In this world of evolving needs, public spaces have had to adapt. COVID-19 has provoked wider discussions among local authorities around the world about the provision of public convenience facilities.

A notable contributor to the craft of toilet placemaking is Tokyo. A culture already renowned for its cleanliness and high-tech approach to hygiene, renewed effort has recently been put into improving Tokyo’s public toilet offering. Funded by the Nippon Foundation, the Tokyo Toilet Project is currently at work to deliver 17 public toilet facilities in the Shibuya district, prioritising cleanliness, accessibility, and safety.

Interestingly, the Japanese project has also chosen to invest in the architecture and design of the facilities – going to show that public conveniences can be just as much a source of pride and beauty as they can public health.

3. Mindfulness 

We’re living in a world that is now more conscious of our collective mental health than it ever has been before. Mental wellbeing has become an acknowledged part of individual health, and while there are still stigmas to be broken down, any guardians of places would do wisely to place mental health in the centre of their planning and development.

One overlooked area is the contribution that can be made to communities by the presence of libraries.

When we spent time in New South Wales, we discovered a library boom taking place.

Recognising the importance of these institutions for community cohesion, mental wellbeing, and equal access to technology, the state’s treasury announced a record funding increase into public libraries in 2018 – and committed a further $165 million (AUD) of investment towards the end of 2022.

Most striking is the joint commitment of private developers and public bodies to install libraries into new schemes.

One of Australia’s largest urban regeneration projects, Green Square will provide homes to over 60,000 residents on the outskirts of Sydney. And sitting pride of place, in the centre of the community, is the Green Square Library and Plaza: a Hollenstein masterpiece of geometry, light, and space. On any given day, this library can be found brimming with students, parents, the elderly, and remote workers – all enjoying the library as a public institution for mindfulness, learning, and community wellbeing.

4. Action

Over the past decade, a whole new industry has grown up around the principle of making exercise more palatable, more friendly, and more enjoyable for those who consider it an absolute chore. Often the notion of ‘shared suffering’ and togetherness is enough to persuade reluctant exercisers to participate – and this explains the recent rampant success of spin classes, Peloton, and events like parkrun. 

With the closure of gyms during lockdowns, the pandemic has served only to accelerate these trends. We’re now living on the cusp of an exercise revolution, where physical activity is becoming gamified, community centric, and urbanised.

With it, the placemaking of exercise is also transforming. 

The vision for outdoor gyms was once framed by the greased muscles and macho flexing of gym-goers at California’s Muscle Beach.

Though still an iconic location for body-builders and Californian culture, Muscle Beach is today representative of a gym culture in decline. Instead, trends in body positivity and exercise accessibility are bringing a new style of physical activity into the streets.

A first and growing trend is in the rise of fitness and exercise trails in urban parks. They can be found in almost any city; a combination of chin-up bars, balancing beams, cross-trainers, and static bicycles.

In the Korean capital of Seoul, we observed that exercise stations are in particularly ample supply, and are often actively used by older generations of the population – a great way to promote intergenerational connections.  In Jangchungdan Park, in the grounds of Dongguk University, an outdoor fitness park resides right next door to an athletics track and bowls club – encouraging generations of students and the elderly to mix as they come together to exercise.

5. Architectural greening

Buildings account for over 40% of any city’s energy output, are the biggest sources of carbon emissions in most cities, and contribute to increasing temperatures of more than 10ºC above their surrounding rural areas.

In short, buildings are bad for us and the planet. But obviously they are a necessity.

With this in mind, architectural greening has grown in influence. It describes the process of incorporating planting strategies, sustainable philosophies, and the ‘green aesthetic’ into building design and construction.

This category has been evolving fast.

Beginning with token green roofs and rooftop gardens in the early 2000s, and escalating to the towering living walls and tree walkways that adorn the world’s skyscrapers today, architects are working hard to continually redefine what it means to be a ‘green building’.

The trend has unmistakable repercussions for the placemaking industry at large. If the futuristic city was once an image of steel and glass, it is now one of rewilded towers and atrium jungles.

One need only take a walk through the streets of Singapore to catch a glimpse of the futuristic city in nature. In 1967, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew set out a vision to transform Singapore into a ‘garden city’, defined by lush greenery, nature reserves, and vast parkland.

Architects have evidently embraced the brief. Take the Oasia Hotel. This bright red tower in Downtown Singapore offers 27 stories, decorated by 21 species of plant and flower, and interrupted only by four enormous squares cut into each side of the tower. The cut-outs allow for an open atrium, encouraging natural ventilation and air cooling through the centre of the building. The greenery, meanwhile, contributes oxygen and temperature reduction to the local area.

Building a healthy city for inflexible humans

The global population is not yet ready to make sacrifices at the service of environmental and public health.

Green travel is acceptable as long as it’s easy. Green roofs will take off so long as they’re aesthetically pleasing. Mindfulness and exercise regimes will be embraced as long as they’re enriching – and fun.

This is the challenge of the placemaking industry today.

In order to find a way to protect both people and planet through placemaking, every solution must be beautiful, easy, life-enhancing, and fundamentally better. Never just healthy.

For a copy of the complete report, please email crispin.reed@hunter-design.co.uk

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