What if… our cities incentivised and enabled healthy lifestyles?

PDP London Architect Holly Harrington sets out the steps that she believes would enable the transformation of our existing high streets and surrounding hubs towards the 15 minute city, a concept which encourages healthier and more balanced lifestyles.

Unfortunately it has taken a pandemic to make us listen. Finally health and wellbeing is at the forefront within the built environment. Over the past decade or more, and increasing number of surveys have come out linking wellbeing, and mental health to overall health, as well as linking our health to the built environment.

We are becoming more aware that poor mental health has impacts on our physical health, which not only affects our levels of happiness and wellbeing – but also has an economic cost too for the NHS.

Now that we are no longer constantly on the move, out all day, out all night, and elsewhere at the weekends, we  now realise our high street doesn’t look so hot, we are not one of the lucky ones who live next to a park, and a decent supermarket is a 30 minutes bus ride away. These factors including lack of greenery, lack of interaction, and poor access to recreational and healthy food facilities all negatively contribute towards our overall health and wellbeing.So what if we could transform our cities to enable a healthier and better quality lifestyle for all of us, boosting both mental and physical health as well as reducing costs on our NHS? Sounds like a no brainer right- but how could we actually do this? 

© Fergus Littlejohn

 1. Improve mental health and wellbeing by reducing stress– By changing policy and local development plans, local and flexible working should be provided close to home for those who want it. This will greatly reduce the daily impact of stress and anxiety of workers who feel they are constantly racing against the clock and running the ‘rat race’ on the daily. Recent surveys show that up to 44% of people who are anxious about their return to the workplace in the future, and a higher rate of 55% in London.[1] These local work spaces could provide a stepping stone to reintegrate people back into society also and ensure that they do not become further isolated later on. These work spaces could be integrated into existing underused high street spaces and other surrounding vacant units.- An increase in pocket parks would provide a greater level of access to greenery for many without balconies, gardens or large parks nearby. This improvement of the local public realm would create a healthier and more enjoyable environment for communities, improving both mental health and local air quality.   

2. Encourage and Incentivise physical activity– Outdoor gym equipment that generates energy when used would not only be sustainable but could also offer reductions of local residents’ bills based on the amount of energy they produce. These outdoor gyms could be located in pocket parks all across the boroughs and could connect into the grid, where the energy created could also supply the lighting and irrigation of each pocket park.- With more basic needs being provided locally, safe and well designed extensive cycle lanes would encourage those who were nervous to cycle on London’s roads before to try it out in the safety of their local neighbourhoods.  

3. Boost well being through social integration, local knowledge sharing and community enterprise– Councils should encourage and support fresh food markets within reach of our existing high streets to ensure that all have sufficient access to healthy food. Several community kitchens could be integrated into each borough where schools, and all local residents would have access to education on nutrition and healthy cooking.  By implementing each of these steps we would enable the transformation of our existing high streets and surrounding hubs towards the 15 minute city concept which encourages a more balanced and lifestyles that are more sustainable and resilient. 

[1]           Statistics from a Poll carried out by CIPD: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/work/trends/goodwork/covid-impact 

Holly Harrington

PDP London

Holly is a registered architect, currently leading a Design Think Tank at the London School of Architecture, and working with PDP London since 2016. Her experience crosses all work stages with a care for the future of heritage buildings, and is currently working on a complex set of Grade I & Grade II listed buildings in London. Working in both academia and professional practice she continues to explore the agency and role of the architect today.

She is a passionate advocate of architecture for all, and in promoting the built environment to under-represented groups through various outreach, academic and mentoring programmes. She is also part of the NLA NexGen network.