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We need public spaces that ‘love people’

JennysmallJan Gehl: ‘good architecture must love people’

The US-based organisation the Urban Land Institute (ULI) recently published 10 principles for building healthy places.

The publication emphasises the strong link between the physical space we live in and our health. It encourages practitioners in community development and land use to respond to this finding by designing environments that facilitate good health. The ULI points out, for example, that people living near parks, playgrounds and good walking and cycling links have higher levels of physical activity, and that people who have views of nature have a lower incidence of depression.

RIBA, the Royal Institute of British Architects, makes a similar case in their recent report City Health Check: How design can save lives and money. RIBA argues that there is a clear correlation between three health indicators (physical activity, diabetes and childhood obesity) and access to green space and housing density in nine of England’s most populous cities. RIBA find that the healthiest cities have the most green space and lowest density housing.

ULI and RIBA are backed up by Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s Fair Society, Healthy Lives: The Marmot Review which presents clear evidence that green space, good quality housing, places for children to play, walking corridors and air and water quality all have impact on health.

And our own research on Tackling Incivilities highlights how the quality of our local environment can influence our feelings of personal safety and levels of anxiety.

Good quality, inviting, public spaces can also help communities to come together, respond to challenges and ‘make things happen’.  The role that our built environment plays in creating strong communities is highlighted, for example, in the Glasgow Centre for Population Health’s recent research on resilience and public health and in the RSA Connected Communities action research Connected Communities: How social networks power and sustain the Big Society. And in Design for Social Sustainability– which is based on research carried out for the Homes and Communities Agency, Social Life point out ‘without the right social infrastructure communities can quickly spiral into decline’.

Unfortunately, despite this evidence about the importance of the quality of our built environment, we also know that the communities with the poorest quality local environments are often those that are worst off economically and socially. If we are to address this then good design and physical transformation must be a key part of regeneration efforts.
How can we do this without repeating past failures where a focus on the physical aspects of regeneration meant neglecting its social aspects?

We think the answer may lie in giving local communities  the lead role in regeneration. The Church of Scotland’s Chance to Thrive programme is a good example of just this approach. The aim is to improve the wellbeing of eight communities in the poorest areas of Scotland. While physical regeneration of the church buildings is an important component of the programme, the focus is initially on building up the skills and confidence of community members. The next step is to support communities to develop public spaces that they feel that they belong to, and, finally, to think about how church buildings can be developed as community resources. In Chance to Thrive, physical regeneration is both the end and the means, and ‘experts’ in design and community development respond to the community’s aspirations.

Last week the Carnegie UK Trust launched our competition the Carnegie Prize for Design and Wellbeing. The prize celebrates community-led initiatives that have transformed a local public space in towns in a way which supports improved health, community cohesion, an increased sense of belonging, community enterprise and regeneration.

It is our hope that some of the stories that emerge will inspire architects, planners, communities, regeneration practitioners and those involved in community development to create more public spaces that ‘love people’.

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