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Good Urban Design Can Make Us Healthier

by John Brydon-Harris on December 6th, 2016

Good urban design and greenspaces impact our health, and healthy office spaces make healthy people.

For some time, scientists have studied the impact of our physical environment on health. Now researchers are almost at the stage when they can quantify these facts. And developers and property owners are listening.

In a recent CBC interview, neuroscientist and design consultant Colin Ellard noted, “You can draw a fairly direct set of lines between urban design and the state of our health. If municipalities want to hear the argument in dollars and cents, we’re getting close to that.”

Green spacesEllard adds, “There are all kinds of ways in which the geometry, the appearance of the surfaces of our surroundings, influence how we feel and how we act, how we decide about things, how we think, how we pay attention.”

As well, design can affect our actual physiology. According to a study in Nature, “…greenspaces can be psychologically and physiologically restorative by promoting mental health … reducing blood pressure and stress as well as promoting physical activity.”

A University of Chicago team of researchers recently studied the impact of trees on health perceptions in Toronto. The results: participants who lived in well-treed neighbourhoods reported lower incidence of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

And, according to Ellard, interior spaces can have the same impact on health as our streetscapes.

Office designers and builders are beginning to act. The current is away from the cubicle model so popular in previous decades: “What you’re trying to do in an office design is find a way to satisfy a large number of needs and a large number of different kind of work roles, typically. So you want to build an environment in such a way that it encourages people to have face-to-face interactions,” Ellard says.

However, it remains a challenge to ensure workers have privacy as well as opportunities for interacting. One company may have found, if not the answer, then an answer. Spotify has designed its office spaces with employees’ health and privacy needs in mind.

In an interview, Satish Kanwar, Shopify’s director of product, says, “We recognized there are people who are predominantly introverts and others who are extroverts…. So we wanted to create a very flexible environment that was both extremely private and extremely open.”

One of the innovations was the “sofa box” – effectively a room on wheels. Soft boxes can be pushed together for meetings or stand apart in splendid isolation. Thanks to a see-through wall, a sofa box is simultaneously open and private.

Ellard notes that office design should be trying to achieve “the water cooler effect,” and design a space where people who may not see or talk to each other in their usual course of work will “bump into each other.” He says: “We don’t have water coolers really anymore, but we can have a proxy for that in the design of space.”

As science focuses on quantifying the benefits of healthful urban design, the industry may see an opportunity in doing the same.

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