Healthy neighborhoods facilitate community social life

Social health is the foundation for physical health. At the 55th IMCL Conference we shall discuss how findings in public health and social sciences should impact the way planners and urban designers shape neighborhoods. 

The quality and quantity of our daily social interaction, and our sense of belonging strongly influence both physical and mental health[1]. We all need companionship, and frequent face-to-face interaction with a wide circle of people who acknowledge us as human beings, share interests, and include us as a “member”. These circles of friends and familiars form a “social immune system[2]” to buffer stress, improve coping, and protect health. Social circles “Maintain, protect, promote and restore health”[3].

Both horizontal sprawl and vertical sprawl cause social isolation[4], which threatens physical and mental health, especially for elders and children. A compact, human scale urban fabric best supports health and well-being[5]. Loneliness is life threatening, but we can design cities to foster community.

The streets and squares at the heart of a 10-minute neighborhood must be hospitable, vibrant settings for community social life and civic engagement. As Martin Buber emphasized, “architects must be set the task of also building for human contact, building surroundings that invite meeting and centers that shape meeting.[6]

Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard will address the principles for designing neighborhood places that successfully draw the full range of the population together and provide stimulus for interaction. The most successful neighborhood hubs, she will stress, combine events that generate interaction (farmers market, community festivals), building uses that attract local residents (commercial and residential), the design of the space itself that provides focal points and gathering places (paving, trees, seating), and physical characteristics that channel and draw local residents (central location, enclosure, proportions, freedom from traffic).

Phil Stafford, Ph.D., Director, Center on Aging and Community, Indiana University, Bloomington, will emphasize the health benefits of intergenerational interaction (not only for elders), and the need for Intergenerational Contact Zones (ICZs) – places in the neighborhood that support engagement across the generations. He will present the ongoing project in Bloomington to create a 10-minute neighborhood with ICZs, and the characteristics of these ICZs.

Nancy Rivenburgh, Professor at the University of Washington will address how to generate community in 10-minute Neighborhoods. Her recommendations are to create what she terms “Communication-Rich Environments”, distinguished by the diversity of people and communication that occur there. Examples of places that often meet these conditions range from food truck pods to dog parks to tool libraries.

Some communities are more resilient in the face of disaster (floods, tornados, earthquakes) than others. Are there physical characteristics of a neighborhood that encourage social bonding and mutual aid? This is a question that Simon Kingham, Professor at the University of Canterbury and Karen Banwell, Strategic Planning Advisor for Regenerate Christchurch studied after the devastating earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. They will tell us their findings.

In previous blogs we discussed some of the ways healthy neighborhoods facilitate independent mobility, and how they facilitate contact with nature and make healthy food available.

In the next blog we shall look at more of the issues to be raised at the 55th IMCL conference regarding the fourth rule of a healthy neighborhood:  Making Healthy Neighborhoods Happen.

[1] Baum and Ziersch 2003. “Social Capital.” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 57(5): 320-323.

[2] House, James S., Karl R. Landis, and Debra Umberson. 1988. “Social Relationships and Health.” Science, issue 241, no. 4865: 540-545.

[3] Nestmann, Frank and Hurrelmann, Klaus. (1994) Social Networks and Social Support in Childhood and Adolescence. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter. 

[4] Leyden, Kevin M. 2003. “Social Capital and the Built Environment: The Importance of Walkable Neighborhoods.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 93, no. 9: 1546-1551.

Gifford, Robert. 2007. “The consequences of living in high-rise buildings.” Architectural Science Review, vol. 50, issue 1: 2-17.

[5] Mouratidis,
 Kostas.  2017. “Built environment and social well-being: How does urban form affect social life and personal relationships?” Cities, 10.020. Accessed January 13, 2018.

[6] Buber, Martin (1967). A Believing Humanism. P. 95