How can city governments ensure better public health?

A Legible London sign, intended to encouraging walking. Image: Applied Wayfinding.

Crossing the street while texting could cost you your life. If you live in Honolulu, even if you survive, thanks to legislation passed earlier this year, it could also land you a hefty fine.

The Hawaiian capital is not the only city trying to get us to look up from our phone. Hayward, California, introduced snarky signs in 2015, reminding us to “Cross the road, then update Facebook.” Singapore installed LED lights on the pavement at crossings to prevent accidents involving people who don’t look up from their phones. Antwerp in Belgium and Chongqing in China have text-walking lanes, and Mumbai and San Francisco have no-selfie zones, while Rexburg in Idaho banned pedestrians from using phones when crossing the street in 2011.

The increase of urban populations around the world is putting pressure on local governments to tackle the preventable health problems caused by air pollution and lifestyle, and some cities are stepping up to the challenge. In London, for example, TfL’s Planning for the Future is investing billions of pounds to develop the city’s transport and lower emissions. And almost 100 cities have joined the World Health Organisation’s European Healthy Cities Network, which aims to improve public health.

But traditional methods of improving a populations’ health – offering free cooking classes and handing out leaflets on how to stop smoking – aren’t enough any more. In these innovative times, cities are starting to play a more involved role in changing our behaviour. Public health researchers in California, for example, installed signs in San Diego International Airport, to encourage people to take the stairs instead of the escalator, which led to twice as many people opting for the former.

But Theresa M. Marteau, director of the behaviour & health research unit at the University of Cambridge, says that far more radical change is needed. “While information-based approaches to changing behaviour can raise awareness of a need for change,” she says, “they are generally, at best, weak interventions for achieving such change.


“There is no doubt that the design of cities and towns is key to population and planetary health. Re-designing these to reduce or remove the use of fossil-fuelled vehicles and increase walking and cycling is just one such change.”

Susan Claris, a transport planner with the consultancy Arup, agrees that cities need to adjust their infrastructure. “Buildings should be designed so that the stairs are the first thing you see and they are inviting to use.” At the moment, she notes, the lifts or escalator are often the first thing you see, “with the stairs hidden away behind closed doors”.

Such re-designs are important, because cities have the potential to reshape human behaviour. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently published a paper titled, “Persuasive Cities: Health Behavior Change at Scale”. It argued that, “according to social cognitive theory, any well-designed environment can become a strong influences of what people think and do”, concluding: “As cities continue to grow… the design of future urban places will become more dominant in impacting human behaviour.”

The key to this level of change lies not in brand new infrastructure, but in the use of technology, according to Arup’s Claris. “Thanks to new technologies, the physical city is changing,” she says. “With sensors and cloud computing, streets are becoming smarter and more interactive. The city can now monitor and analyse activity levels, actively advocate walking and cycling routes, as well as create a layer of play, fun and games onto the streetscape.”

All this, she says, is enabling cities to play a growing role in public health and wellbeing, “away from the traditional posters, leaflets and other traditional campaigns”. By combining better design and better incentives, cities can make sure that “the healthy choice is the fun, easy, convenient and attractive choice”.

 
 
 
 

Park Life: On the repeated incineration of Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace from the air. Image: John Bointon/Wikimedia Commons.

Head directly north in a straight line from the official centre point of London at Charing Cross, and the first park of any real size you’ll hit is Alexandra Park. You’ll know you’re headed in the right direction when you spot the whacking great palace sat on the hill in the middle of it.

But Alexandra Palace and Park aren’t the former home of some forgotten bit of the nobility: they were actually purpose built for more or less their current use, as a venue for North Londoners to get up to a wide variety of things that may or may not be considered fun.

Various Victorians, including Owen Jones (presumably not him), one of the architects responsible for the Crystal Palace in the south, thought an equivalent in the north might be worthwhile, and used the same cost-saving manoeuvre: while the Crystal Palace had been built from the construction materials of the Great Exhibition, it’s northern counterpart used parts from the 1862 International Exhibition in Kensington.

Proving some kind of point, I guess.

Initially known as “the palace of the People”, it took on a marginal air of aristocracy when the park opened in 1863, the same year that the future King Edward VII married Alexandra of Denmark. The building opened in 1873, and copied Crystal Palace again, by almost immediately burning to the ground.


But two years later they’d nailed the bits back together and finally the people of North London had something to do other than complaining how long it’s going to take them to get to this birthday party in Peckham.

One of the more notable features of the next century or so of the park’s existence was its racecourse, known as The Frying Pan, because it looked a bit like a frying pan on whatever the Victorian equivalent of satellite photography is (balloon rides or imagining things, I guess). Popular for much of its life, attendances dwindled in the 1970s. Who wants to look at horses when television’s in colour now?

It was the favourite course of famous sexist and horse describer John McCririck – he’s been linked to efforts to get it rebuilt, and has instructed his wife to scatter his ashes on the site. Hopefully local residents will be warned so they can shut their windows first. Though the outline of the course is visible from above – the cricket pitch sits in the middle of it – It otherwise only survives in the names of a couple of now trendified gastro-pubs, the Victoria Stakes and the Starting Posts.

Early non-horse based physical activities available included going up in a balloon (mainly to draw pictures of what the race course looked like, presumably) and then jumping off the balloon while wearing a parachute if you were, for example, waitress turned daredevil Dolly Shepherd, commemorated in a mural on the side of the palace. There was also a lido, which legend states was used to wash visiting circus Elephants. It is unclear whether this is connected to the dubious cleanliness that to its demise by the early part of the last century.

Winter sports have been an unlikely intermittent features of the park: you prod the some of the undergrowth on one side of the hill, you might be able to uncover the remains of what was once London’s most popular dry ski slope, ideal for if you didn’t want to have to lie to all your friends about how much fun your first skiing holiday had been. Though long since defunct, in 1990 it gained a spiritual successor in the palace’s ice rink, which among other things has been home to various ice hockey teams, most recently the ‘Haringey Huskies’, it says here.

Less glamorous from this angle. Image: Ed Jefferson.

But back in the 1980s the palace and park were briefly threatened with being entirely sport-based. After the palace decided to have a belated centenary celebration and burn down again, there was a proposal to redevelop the whole thing into a massive sports complex, including – good news, snow haters – a brand new dry ski slope. In the end nothing came of it – the existing building was retained and most of the sport associated with the park now is of the indoor variety: among many other things, the palace hosts darts and table tennis tournaments.

The park does see a bit of the action. Aside from the football and cricket pitches, a popular brand of energising drink sponsors an annual soapbox race, and there’s a miniature golf course that makes up for being golf by a) being miniature and b) allowing you to drink while playing (well, if you book the whole thing for an office party circa 2011).

Sadly the park’s best sport of all has been retired: watching puce-faced CityMetric writers attempt to run to the top of the hill the palace sits on, while placing bets on whether they will reach the top before keeling over and dying (2015-2018).