Our (future) cities, our (future) selves

(Urban, wealth, education, ageing; Songs of the city: The Specials; Marvin Gaye; Randy Crawford)

We humans have embarked an on an unprecedented quadruple experiment – one affecting just about everyone on the planet. And, remarkably, excluding academia and some rarefied policy circles, we aren’t really talking about it, or even thinking too hard about it. The four intersecting experiments? We are now an urban-living, increasingly-educated, ageing, and wealthier, species.

Let’s briefly take these points in turn, and then focus on some of them through a brain and behaviour lens.

We are now an urban species: Over the past decade most of us on the planet have started living in urban centres – no longer are we living our lives on farms, or hunting or gathering in nature to stay alive. Unprecedented numbers of us are migrating to cities every year – in every country that we look at. Inevitably, this changes our relationships to nature, to our sources of food, to how we make a living – and, of course, our relations with each other.

We are an increasingly well-educated species: literacy rates have been rising dramatically over the past century. In high-income societies, literacy rates approach 100%, and an important educational focus now is raising literacy rates among formerly-neglected populations; years spent in education have risen also substantially, with the numbers attaining at least secondary education hitting an all-time high. This is a huge change, since as recently as the 1960’s school-leaving ages in many western societies were quite a bit lower (often the very early teenage years). The same trend has obvious in low- and middle-income countries – where literacy rates have been rising, decade after decade for the past half-century.

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We are also an ageing species. Just about everywhere you look, life expectancy has risen dramatically over the course of the past two centuries. There have been setbacks and regressions in this trend – wars reduce life expectancies, as have the ‘deaths of despair’ that have pockmarked the US and some other countries. But the global trend is clear: there has been an astonishing rise in life expectancy – attributable to a wide variety of factors, including public health measures (such as vaccination – who fears polio now?), health engineering (our sewage systems are an unsung miracle, carrying effluent and disease away for safe treatment), treatment options (we can be very good at treating diseases), safety measures (we don’t die in anything like the numbers on the roads that we used to, for example), and ameliorating slow-moving catastrophes (in particular, the decrease in smoking – smoking itself being an astounding public health catastrophe, reducing life expectancy by about ten years on average, and increasing susceptibility to communicable and non-communicable diseases – we forget that as recently as the 1960’s, that very often the majority of the adult (male) population smoked).

Finally, we are getting richer as a species. The absolute and relative numbers living in poverty has dropped dramatically over the past few centuries – although in many societies, the gain in wealth has been very uneven, and without fiscal efforts, often very concentrated too.

What do all these changes mean for us as a species (assuming , of course, we don’t destroy the planet through runaway climate change, or the sudden appearance of a pandemic with dramatically-increased lethality)? Runaway climate change reduces fertile lands, affects water supplies, and drives migration away from affected regions, and increasing burdens in other places. Relatively speaking, we could have been having a much worse time with covid – but we know so much more about diseases now than, for example, in medieval times. Estimates suggest that anywhere up to a quarter or more of the population of Europe was lost to the black death, for example.

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Let’s now think a bit about the shapes our town and cities might want to take over the coming decades – for decades are the lengths of time we need to think about. There are two things I want to focus on here – ageing, and greening our cities.

Ageing brings with it many challenges – these can be thought of as broadly being ‘personal’ factors, ‘environmental’ factors, and ‘chance’ factors. These should not be thought of in isolation, by any means. How we age depends in part on personal behaviours – for example, getting regular, good quality exercise through the life-course, not drinking alcohol to excess, and not smoking all have huge effects on individual health and wellbeing. Not smoking, as is well-known, reduces your chances of dying from cancer and heart disease substantially – giving you as many as ten or more extra years of life. But environmental factors matter too – these are things beyond the individual. Living in a society that supports smoking tips the scales in favour of your becoming a smoker. The danger to health from the peer effects of hanging around with people who smoke are much greater than secondary smoking – something not widely appreciated - because of ‘behavioural contagion’ – if they smoke, you are much more likely to as well. Finally, there are ‘chance’ factors – sustaining a life-altering injury because you stumbled and fell on an unrepaired footpath, for example - and that injury might be much worse because of the frailty that can accompany ageing.

We need to start implementing policies to ‘age-proof’ our towns and cities. Ageing can bring many problems – especially for mobility, and the voice of the older person can be lost in the design process. For example, in an important study (telling entitled ‘Most older pedestrians are unable to cross the road in time’) Laura Asher and her colleagues examined 3,145 adults in the UK aged sixty five or older, testing for impairments in walking speed to investigate if simple tasks like crossing streets at signal-controlled junctions might be difficult or impossible as a result of ageing. They found that 84% of males and 94% of females tested had a walking impairment. And the key point? Road crossings are usually set for people who can walk at least 1.2 metres per second, and most of the older adults tested walked at below this speed. In other words, without bringing this population into the urban design process, they might be, or will be, overlooked – and we end up saying, in effect, ‘you are to be trapped in your homes’, with the restriction of dignity and imposed helplessness this forces upon the elderly.

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Is this fanciful? Sadly, no. The picture below was taken of a newly re-organised junction at the edge of Galway (my hometown), in the west of Ireland. Getting from one side of the road to the other can take 14 minutes on foot – seemingly, because the needs of pedestrians are secondary to cars (and yet when you leave your car – you become what? A pedestrian!). In effect, transport engineers are saying the needs of anyone not in a car are not relevant. And the paradox is that Galway is an old Medieval city with streets unsuitable for cars, and where the best streets and districts are pedestrianised destinations, not thoroughfares.

We evolved as an outdoor species – and now we spend almost all our time indoors – often in places and spaces that are entirely unsuitable for us – with inadequate ventilation, hygiene, uncontrolled noise, and other stressors. Getting outdoors benefits us in all sorts of ways – relieving stress, and conferring an uplift in mood. What are the roots of this change caused by being outdoors? I discuss ‘Attention Restoration Theoryin my book on walking: this is the theory that regular exposure to nature should be a vital part of our lives, because nature exposure, necessarily and inescapably, brings a staggering variety of cognitive, emotional and physiological benefits. This is because we humans find nature inherently fascinating – moreover, we are attracted to it involuntarily and effortlessly – for nature ‘recharges’ us in vital ways, promoting restoration from stress and fatigue, allowing us to concentrate and refocus ourselves as we need.

There has been a recent renewed focus on the need for greening our urban environments – for all sorts of reasons. In a justly-famous study, Roger Ulrich found that a random assignment of patients to a bed with view through a window onto a natural scene may influence recovery in operative patients. From the study: ‘Records on recovery after cholecystectomy of patients in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital between 1972 and 1981 were examined to determine whether assignment to a room with a window view of a natural setting might have restorative influences. Twenty-three surgical patients assigned to rooms with windows looking out on a natural scene had shorter postoperative hospital stays, received fewer negative evaluative comments in nurses' notes, and took fewer potent analgesics than 23 matched patients in similar rooms with windows facing a brick building wall’ (emphasis added). A view of nature means you recover more quickly, need less medication, and complain less in the process! What’s not to like? Our hospitals could leverage effects like this will all sorts of ‘green’ tweaks that bring the sights and sounds of nature to patients.

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What of our towns and cities? Urban environments can be stressful and unpleasant, concentrating or even exacerbating psychiatric problems. In a recent study in Germany, Heike Tost and colleagues show that ‘exposure to urban green space improves well-being in naturally behaving male and female city dwellers, particularly in districts with higher psychiatric incidence and fewer green resources.’ They also found positive changes in a very of brain areas associated with the cognitive control of negative emotions.

A recent paper (Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective) summarises the expert consensus on our need for nature into three straightforward, and strongly empirically-supported, propositions:

  1. Evidence supports an association between common types of nature experience and increased psychological well-being [comment: increasing nature experience should be a new frontier in public and private policy]

  2. Evidence supports an association between common types of nature experience and a reduction of risk factors and burden of some types of mental illness [comment: nature experience brings mental health benefits, and should be a priority]

  3. Evidence suggests that opportunities for some types of nature experience are decreasing in quantity and quality for many people around the globe [comment: loss of green space is a looming problem, bringing direct and indirect mental health problems]

Looking forward, how should we design our towns and cities to maximise health and well-being? It’s fairly obvious, actually: we have to give priority to design principles that maximise our wellbeing as individuals and as societies. Our towns and cities should prioritise the personal, active mobility needs of all individuals – and not trap generations of older persons, and other persons with mobility impairments in their homes. After all, we all hope to get older, and should not fall into the traps that we have set for the elderly and others, while we are younger and mobile.

We need also to incorporate accessible green elements into all urban design – from the simple provision of edging of pavements with planter pots, hedging and other green micro-environments, to green provision, and nature experience for all – no more concrete jungles, please! Green-proofing should be a necessary and major component of urban design too.

The benefits accruing will be substantial: less stress, greater connectedness, less distress, greater well-being, increased dignity for all. We could have compact cities with less car-bound sprawl, with mixed use – especially now that working from home has become a defining outcome of the pandemic. We could have towns and cities with a strong sense of themselves as a place and places to be; we could have towns and cities that are human-oriented, with green spaces aplenty for psychological and physiological refreshment.

And are there cities like this? Yes, indeed, there are, and many cities have quarters like this. One of my favourite cities is Bologna in Italy – an utterly, wonderfully, walkable city – and of which, the famous writer Umberto Eco, memorably wrote that it is ‘all texture and no excrescence … it is a city of communal spaces, arcades, bars, shops, a city whose sight lines are designed to meet shopfronts, café tables and other people’s eyes’ (see more on Eco and urban planning here).

This sounds worth having as our desirable urban future, doesn’t it?

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Music - Songs of the city

The Specials - Ghost Town (Official Music Video)

Marvin Gaye - Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)

Randy Crawford - Street Life

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