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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Six ways to de-stress your life



We all know that stress is bad for you and previously, I addressed the effects stress can have on your physical self. I know just as well as the next person that it’s much easier said than done to not let stress take over your life.


So how do you stop stress in its tracks? What if stress is already an unwanted guest in your life? I’ve listed some ways below that I believe are practical options for those of us who cannot afford to just pack up and move to that cave in the mountains (I, for one, love central heating way too much).


1.  Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

By this I don’t mean go on a liquid diet but rather, think about your current lifestyle. Some of us push ourselves way too much, some without realizing and others because they have no choice. Are you taking on too many things? Can you cut back on some of the activities and tasks?

Another unlikely point: are you socializing too much? Entertaining frequently, even when it’s a perfectly fun and pleasant experience, could be running you down.


2.  Prioritize your responsibilities.

I am actually quite proud of the fact that unlike some in the animal kingdom, we can multi-task. And others even more advanced can juggle both metaphorically and physically! However, we need to take into account the shape and size of those objects we’re juggling. We are all adept at having 3 or 5 metaphorical balls up in the air. You might even be able to juggle seven. But when they are the size of fridge-freezers, it is definitely time to stop and take a step back.

Even Superman would struggle at stopping five locomotives at the same time. It may seem like you can’t drop anything, but you might find that things get completed easier and more efficiently if you do fewer things at a time.

3.  Breathe.

Many, many people meditate and every single one of them advocates it for their mental clarity. However if you find it quite hard to clear your mind, I think just having moments of silence is just as beneficial.

Go for walks along the river or stroll through the park. Try to do it without your headphones and mobile phones. Make a conscious decision to hear the world around you, even if it’s only the leaves crunching under your shoes or the distant whoops and shouts from the children in the play area. Breathe (in through the nose and out through the mouth) and clear your mind.


4.  Don’t dwell on it.

In his brilliant book “Mind Wide Open”, Steven Johnson discussed the effects of fear and subsequent stress levels due to a scare or traumatic situation on our autonomic system. Due to the way the amygdala form grooves in the brain to create memories (the deeper the grooves, the stronger the memories) it’s probably much better for all of us if we dwelled less on unpleasant thoughts and more on the lovely nice stuff.

It must be stressed (no pun intended) that eventually you will need to talk about a distressing incident (holding it inside is never a good thing), but the key is perhaps not to talk (or think) about it while the incident is fresh in the mind.

How can we take this idea and use it to deal with everyday stresses? It may be tempting (and incredibly satisfying) to have a good rant after a particularly irritating and annoying day but by dwelling on it, aren’t we giving it too much significance? It is so much easier to go on and on about a lengthy wait to pay at the local supermarket because they never have enough cashier points open but you are just embedding that experience into your brain in bolded italics. Instead replay nice moments like the time that stranger helped you carry that suitcase up the stairs.

5.  Take it easy.

I know I’m stating the obvious here, and surely if you did take it easy, well then, you wouldn’t be stressed and reading this now. So perhaps what I mean to say is:

5b.  Get rid of irritants.

How come chemicals come with warnings so that we don’t drink it and know to flush our eyes with cold, clean water if it comes into contact with them?

We need the same kind of warnings for our day to day lives. If you’re stuck in traffic, don’t listen to that radio show where people with absurd views phone in. If you’re fed up with waiting in lines to pay, try alternative options like shopping online. If you aren’t terribly impressed with a service, write a complaint letter. The action of writing is cathartic but by mailing the letter (or sending the email) you don’t dwell on it once the action is over. Accept that you will probably never receive a response, but that’s fine; just don’t rant about it afterwards to all your friends, colleagues and the person at the bar.

Frustrations are one of the precursors to stress, so get rid of the frustrations! You might even find that besides being in a better state of mind, you have much more time and energy as a result of it.


6.  Don’t let it build up.

There may be moments where you feel overwhelmed and this is when people who surround themselves with a strong wall of friends, family or confidantes tend to cope better.

Sometimes it may take professional support for your body and mind to get back on track. You can seek advice from your GP, a therapist, or alternative practitioners. For instance, a counsellor could help you discover ways to cope with stress, while a traditional acupuncturist could help with the fatigue and crankiness or digestive disorders associated with stress. Sometimes a treat could break the bonds of the drudge and in that case, a massage could do wonders.


How do you deal with unrelenting pulls at your metaphorical hem? Share your ideas on successfully gliding past the stresses in life. 

Photo credit: Dawn Huczek via flickr

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