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 The blog entry is reflecting the lecture by Prof Tim Townshend which we received as a part of our Principles and Practice of Urban Design. the post focuses on a relationship between human well-being and urban design, raising an issue of increasing obesity level in contemporary megacities. 

Problem of Pollution in Urban Areas

Needless to say that the majority of our cities suffer from water, air, noise and light pollution causing a negative impact on quality of our life and health. As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, Design of Neighbourhoods: In Search of an Ideal City, our cities are built for and around car, significantly reducing our activity level and increasing air, noise and water pollution. Life in some world’s megacities isn’t only unpleasant but even life-threatening and every day we, urban dwellers, step outside into an environment that has become unsafe for human being:

More than 3 million people a year are killed prematurely by outdoor air pollution, according to a landmark new study, more than malaria and HIV/Aids combined

And the above number will double by 2050 if we don’t take any steps to resolve the problem, scientists warn. World Health Organisation says:

As urban air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in them

People wearing face masks visit Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Feb. 26, 2014. Source-Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images (click the image to read more)

There is another side effect of technology progress that can be seen in cities-raising obesity level. Our modern life in cities is designed around consumption and accessibility:

  • High streets crammed with shop signs inviting us to eat more for less
  • Supermarkets offer discounts if buying in bulk, with packaging becoming larger
  • Modern technologies allow reduce the time for food preparation and increase its shelve life, meanwhile reducing its value for the human health
  • Many hot food takeaways are open 24/7 making unhealthy food affordable and accessible

UK cities are no exemption, unfortunately, with obesity rates increasing steadily in urban areas. The statistic reports are rather shocking saying that more than half of London adults and a third of children are obese or overweight.

Obesity rates in UK, source: Fit North West website

British high streets and town centres have lost their shopping distinctiveness over the last 3 decades, turning into ‘clone towns’ crammed with chain coffee shops, fast food restaurants, take-aways. High streets in some poorer neighbourhoods represented as a toxic mix of use, where the location and cluster of shops represent an unhealthy loop of activities-gambling, all-you-can-eat restaurants, money lenders, etc. Prof Tim G Townshend writes in his “Toxic high streets”:

First, that proximity and availability encourages use of specific unhealthy shops and services, for example, fast food. Second, that some unhealthy behaviours are clearly linked, such as problematic gambling and alcohol abuse. Finally, that unscrupulous businesses deliberately target poorer communities with these unhealthy outlets

Clapham High Street, in South London, has changed dramatically in the past 35 years (Click the image to read more)

The question is, what can we do, as urban designers, to promote a healthier life style in our cities?

Case studies

Let’s look into some examples around the world on how the policies and urban design strategies made the urban environment more human friendly and health-promoting.

My colleague Fabian Lozano Palomino in his blog post tells about Bogota, city in Colombia which in 1970 introduced Ciclovía Recreativa. The scheme promotes a healthier life style by closing 100 km of streets to traffic on Sundays and public holidays:

Between 600 000 and 1.4 million people use these streets to exercise every week, and 41% of adults participate for more than 3h at a time. Moreover, research suggests that every $1 invested (both by the city and by individuals) leads to an estimated net annual saving in health costs of between $3·2 and $4·2 per person

This scheme tackles several issues at the same time-increases physical activity, reduces air/water/noise pollution and reducing health costs.

Another example is from London, city with the highest proportion of obesity among children with a number as high as 40% being overweight at the time they finish primary school. Mr Sadiq Khan, Major of London, is planning to announce the policy which will ban fast food takeaways to open within 400 m of schools. As there’s quite a lot of evidence that having fast food nearby leads to more obesity, by banning fast food nearby schools he hopes to encourage children to make more healthier food choices.


Tackling obesity in cities
Toxic high streets, Tim G Townshend
The Bogota Ciclovia-Recreativa and Cicloruta Programs: Promising Interventions to Promote Physical Activity, and Social Capital in the City of Bogota, Andrea D Torres
The School Fringe
World Health Organisation

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Planning and Landscape
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