Good city planning equals healthier and happier people


Walking through the streets of Belgravia and Pimlico is one of the nicest things you can do if you have an hour free to yourself. You can step away from the computer, pull yourself from Twitter, even turn off your ipod and listen to the sounds of the city around you. The occasional bee-boo bee-boo of the sirens from nearby Victoria belies the tranquillity of streets lined with beautiful white Regency fronted houses. You can hear birds chirping and schoolchildren skipping, the clatter of the BoJo bikes alongside the dull hum of black cabs. And yet just within easy reach of these quiet residential pockets are streets lined with shops that create the sense of community, where people wave at each other through glass windows. 


Give me the city over the country any time.


During my semester in Beijing I noticed outdoor gyms dotted everywhere. These were simple exercise machines, similar to standard ones found in indoor gyms, that didn’t require electricity or even much maintenance. Painted in bright colours, the machines harnessed the user’s own body weight to create resistance allowing you to work your upper body as well as your legs.


Imagine a playground with yellow monkey bars and red see-saws. Now replace those with metal contraptions that usually accommodated four users to a unit and fill the playground with, wait for it, the elderly.


Everyone has seen images of Chinese senior citizens up at the crack of dawn practicing their tai chi. I had witnessed this in balmy Guangzhou before and almost a decade later, the tradition was still going strong despite the cold front blowing in. In the evenings, the squares in my neighbourhood would be filled with other events like ballroom dancing, depending on the day of the week. Bookended in between though, are the outdoor gyms and the ping pong tables which would be alive with activity.


The Beijing outdoor gyms are a good example of successful urban planning. In his excellent book “Emergence”, Steven Johnson describes how city planning is a result of emergent behaviour, much like how slime molds aggregate without a central pacemaker cell, or how an ant colony goes about its business not by listening to the queen bee but by responding to each other’s signals. In other words, many systems that we know including computer programming, all follow bottom-up behaviour.


Since the middle of the 20th century, town planners have been trying to tackle the problem of inner city slums with a top-down approach. However, razing down entire neighbourhoods and building blocks of towers didn’t ease the problem, in fact it made it a lot worse. By removing the sidewalks, open spaces or areas where people could congregate they were also removing the organic sense of community.


How many times have you walked along a country road (because there is no sidewalk) frazzled with nerves because you can’t tell if the next car can see you? A study has shown that the way town planners design the landscape, whether in the city or rurally, has an effect too. It’s not just a matter of streets getting us from A to B, it turns out that the number of intersections tend to influence whether residents will jog or exercise along them. 


In his blog post, Jay Parkinson states what many in Chinese medicine already know, “most health solutions aren’t medical, they’re social”. He noted that many times, social situations can lead to a lifestyle change more than medical situations. In Parkinson’s case it was finding a cycling buddy; being in a relationship with someone who enjoyed cooking and not just dining out every night; finding a new activity at the gym (indoor I may add) that actually increased his enthusiasm resulting in him going more regularly.

The residents in Beijing swishing their hand fans and brandishing their decorative (I think) swords during their elaborate exercises, and the elderly chit-chatting as they sit around the urban gym machines working on their lower body strength are living proof that health and wellbeing is an intricate part of our lifestyles. It works the body and benefits the mind.


Photo credit: Ivan Walsh via flickr

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