Since the industrial revolution, there has been a rapid migration into towns and cities which is still ongoing. Today, the majority of the world’s population lives in urban environments, and the proportion is set to grow to two-thirds by the middle of the century. This change, largely unplanned, has led to challenges that in many ways we are still struggling to come to terms with. Although even rural environments are man-made, they have slowly evolved over thousands of years, giving time for people to evolve with them. Cities, especially today’s high-density mega-cities, offer new environments that humans are not by nature designed for.
This problem has manifested itself in different ways over the 200 years or so in which town and city-dwelling has become the norm. The UK was the first country to industrialise and urbanise, and here the crowded and unsanitary conditions led to diseases like cholera and tuberculosis becoming rife. These were overcome primarily through the development of medicines, but the part played by the environment in helping diseases to spread rapidly was noticed. This led to many of the elements of the planning regime we live with today, including green belts and smokeless zones, as well as innovations like ‘garden cities’ that endeavoured to create urban environments designed to be both productive and pleasant to live in.
Even so, the more subtle relationships between urban dwellers and their environment are only just beginning to be recognised. Research from different parts of the world has shown a close link between a person’s health – both physical and mental – and the amount of green space in their environment.
In Japan, having accessible green space near one's home and a positive attitude to the surrounding community were identified as two of the key factors contributing to its inhabitants’ impressive life expectancy.
The Meristem 2007 Forum, convened at the New York Academy of Medicine, asserted that ‘contact with nature is a basic human need: not a cultural amenity, not an individual preference, but a universal primary need. Just as we need healthy food and regular exercise to flourish, we need ongoing connections with the natural world.’
In Sweden, researchers at the University of Agricultural Sciences found ‘statistically significant relationships…between the use of urban open greenspaces and self-reported experiences of stress – regardless of the informant’s age, sex and socio-economic status. The results suggest that the more often a person visits urban open green spaces, the less often he or she will report stress-related illnesses.’
Back here in the UK, in 2014, the Landscape Institute published a Position Statement, which called for landscape designs to pay as much regard to their importance for health as for their other functions. This crystallises the modern expectation that all planning schemes, particularly in urban areas, should demonstrate how they will enhance people’s health.
Trees feature heavily in modern planning. As well as helping to absorb carbon dioxide, they provide valuable psychological connections to nature as well as physically helping to remove airborne pollutants and reduce the impact of traffic noise. Car traffic itself is being slowed and relocated so that it has less impact in residential areas, although this in itself can cause stress to motorists struggling to get from A to B. Ultimately, the aim is to get people out of cars and to use more healthy ways to move around.
Like so many other aspects of life, the pandemic has accelerated what was already the trend towards healthy environments. Lockdowns and other restrictions have limited our scope to travel, often to what is within reach on foot from our own doorsteps, so we have all become much more aware of the positive and negative attributes of our immediate surroundings. People are anxious to make the most of any space they have available.
For those lucky enough to have gardens, this means adding to the enjoyment they can get from them. At Millboard, we have been lucky enough to benefit from this trend as decking is one of the features many have sought to add, but we fully expect demand this year to also be driven by hospitality businesses and local councils seeking to improve their communal outdoor spaces. Ipswich has already declared its goal to become the UK’s first ’15-minute town’, where all residents can access every key amenity within a 15-minute walk, while Wales’s Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, has called for all citizens of the principality to have access to a public green space within a four-minute walk of their homes.
While the concept of landscape’s importance to overall health was already well-established, the pandemic has shone a light on the number of people – especially in towns and cities – who are being denied the opportunity to relax, exercise or simply just spend time outdoors due to the current limitations of their surroundings. For all the terrible pain that the coronavirus has inflicted, we may look back on it as being the biggest catalyst for change in making our towns truly people-friendly.