How can we build healthier cities?

Cambridge, 1935: the city has always been cyclist friendly. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” said Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. For Johnson, the rich tapestry of London life and the myriad cultural assets clearly outweighed any downsides of city dwelling.

For others, though, city life is a grind. Public transport is overcrowded, house prices are soaring, traffic is at gridlock and diesel fumes hang almost perceptibly in the air. Little surprise, then, that people do become tired of London, even if not of life itself.

Even if issues such as air pollution are taken out of the equation, living in a city can be bad for your health – not good news considering that the World Health Organization estimates that, in 2017, the majority of people live in urban areas.

A study published in 2014 by Dr Manjinder Sandhu from the Cambridge Department of Medicine suggested that increasing urbanisation of rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa might lead to an explosion of the incidence of stroke, heart disease and diabetes. Yes, moving to towns and cities provides better access to education, electricity and hospitals; but town and city dwellers become less active, their work becomes less physical and their diets worsen.

“If this pattern is repeated across the globe – which we think it will – then we could face an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other potentially preventable diseases,” says Sandhu. “Local and national governments need to take this into consideration when planning infrastructure to try and mitigate such negative effects.”

As far as healthy cities go, Cambridge has a lot going for it. Its population has higher than average levels of education and is physically active. Cambridge has been nicknamed “the cycling capital of Britain” – the sight of bicycles leaning against walls is as iconic as that of punts passing under the Bridge of Sighs. But as the city expands and house prices rocket, more and more people are living in neighbouring villages and towns, where cycling to work along winding, congested country lanes can be less appealing than driving.

In 2011, the world’s longest guided busway opened, connecting Cambridge with nearby Huntingdon and St Ives along a former railway line. An integral part of the busway was a cycle path along its route – and this appears to have helped nudge people in the right direction. A study led by Dr David Ogilvie from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit found that, among people who commuted into Cambridge from within a 30 km radius, those who lived closer to the busway were more likely to increase the amount of active” commuting they did, particularly cycling.

“Commuting is a part of everyday life where people could include a bit more physical activity without having to think about it very much or make time for it,” says Ogilvie. “When new infrastructure integrates opportunities for walking and cycling, we see people shifting their commuting behaviour.”

Ogilvie’s research is, he says, “contributing bricks of evidence to a wall that’s slowly being assembled from across the world of the health benefits of investing into this kind of infrastructure”/ While such benefits are often alluded to in business cases, until now the evidence to support them has been limited.

There are ways to integrate more pedestrian-friendly environments in existing infrastructure, he says, citing examples such as those in the Netherlands – now being introduced in some areas of London – where traffic is slowed to walking pace and the divisions between pavement and road are deliberately blurred, cuing drivers to share the space.

With more thoughtful urban planning, Ogilvie says, it should be possible to design towns and cities as environments that promote not just physical activity, but improved health and wellbeing – “in short, a place where people want to live”.

“Sprawling cities with retail parks on the fringes are not conducive to doing your shopping on foot,” he says. “People are more likely to walk and cycle around their neighbourhood if it is safe, well connected and has good local amenities. And getting people out on the streets not only gets them active, it also increases social interactions and a sense that it’s safe to be on the streets.”

Dr Jamie Anderson from the Department of Architecture is also interested in the relationship between the built environment and our broader wellbeing. As part of his PhD project with Professor Koen Steemers (architecture) and Professor Felicia Huppert (psychology), he did a study of another Cambridge initiative, the housing development known as Accordia.

Since the first residents moved into their homes in the mid-noughties, Accordia has won numerous prizes, including the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize, for its innovative mixing of private and public spaces. Yet surprisingly, says Anderson, no one had done a detailed study of the impact on its residents.

Accordia. Image: Jamie Anderson.

One of the interesting approaches taken by Accordia was to focus on communal spaces rather than private gardens: only one in five homes has its own garden. Given the stereotype of the British as a very private people, how did people respond? Did people spend time chatting outdoors with their neighbours, or did they shut themselves away and draw the curtains?

The results, explains Anderson, were mixed. While one middle-aged couple missed having their own garden and were now on a long waiting list for a local allotment, one mother described the communal gardens as “crucially important”: she had suffered from postnatal depression and, with her husband away at work all day, she told Anderson that she “wouldn’t have got through her depression” without the interactions that the adjacent communal areas provided.

“In terms of behaviours that we associate with physical health and positive mental health – so people interacting with each other, children out playing, for example – we found clear positive associations with Accordia’s outdoor neighbourhood spaces,” he adds, “but when we looked at people’s subjective wellbeing, it wasn’t as clear cut.”


With Accordia, Anderson was evaluating an already established development, but he now has a chance to influence a project at the planning stage. Part of the Northern Powerhouse project will see a £110m culture venue in Manchester named The Factory after the eponymous record company behind such iconic bands as Joy Division and Happy Mondays.

Under a fellowship from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Anderson, in collaboration with engineering firm BuroHappold, is carrying out a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) of the proposed new site. He’s looking at factors that might influence health and wellbeing, from the lighting in office spaces, through to educational opportunities for young people from deprived communities and the restaurants within the venue.

HIAs are currently voluntary, but are set to become mandatory for significant developments across the UK in 2017, and can help architects and designers improve their submissions for planning application. How effective they’ll be is unclear, warns Anderson. “You might have some really strong evidence, but the final decision is a blend of opinion from various stakeholders, so you could end up with a watered-down version of what’s needed.”

He remains optimistic, however: “We’re moving in the right direction. By building consideration of health and wellbeing into the planning process, it should raise the bar and hopefully we will see many more cycle lanes, more inviting and better options for active transport, and maybe fewer fast-food shops.”

“I don’t know what makes me stay / The city life just ain’t the same,” sang New Order, one of Factory Record’s best known signings, in 2001. Perhaps the work of Cambridge researchers will help make cities attractive – and healthy – places to stay.

This article previously appeared on the University of Cambridge’s website, and appears here under a creative commons licence.

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Park Life: on John Claudius Loudon, the father of the modern park

Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum: an engraving from one of Loudon’s books. Image: Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

Where did parks begin? Where was the first park? Who created it?

These questions aren’t actually as unanswerable as they might first appear. If you’re talking about purpose-built public parks as opposed to private gardens or common land, there’s an at least plausible answer in Derby, which at the very least is home to what might be the oldest extant example in Britain.

The Arboretum was created in 1840 by Joseph Strutt, a public-minded (ish) industrialist. His intricately landscaped park was designed to give the workers (e.g. the ones in his own cotton mills) somewhere for recreation and exercise on the two half-days off he generously gave them.

Loudon. Image: Royal Horticultural Society/Wikimedia Commons.

Strutt may have paid for it, but the real credit should perhaps go to its designer, John Claudius Loudon: he even provided the name, having been the first person to apply the word arboretum to curated botanical gardens. You thought you were having fun in a park: Loudon was trying to trick you into learning about trees.

Loudon is a now slightly obscure figure, having been eclipsed by those he influenced. A pseudo-self-made Scot (his father was a farmer who was at least successful enough to ensure his kid got an education), by the time he was 30 he’d made a fortune introducing new farming and gardening methods to southern England.

At this point, not dissuaded by – for example – the Napoleonic Wars, he sent himself on a Grand Tour of Europe. This was to, in his own words, cast off “confining coil of insular thought”, but he was especially seeking to increase his botanical knowledge. Along the way he picked up a strain of social liberalism, particularly focussed on the importance of public, ideally green, spaces.


Practical efforts in this area were hindered by discovering on his return from Europe that a dodgy investment meant he was broke, and later through health problems that highly excellent 19th-century medicine eventually attempted to cure by cutting off one of his arms. But he wrote extensively, contributing to the Encyclopedia Britannica and publishing Encyclopedias, magazines and various other works of his own, primarily on the subject of landscape gardening, but also tackling the design of everything from pubs to cemeteries.

The preservation and development of green space within the city was something Loudon thought about throughout his life. In fact, his first published writing was a letter about the importance of public squares in London as “breathing zones”.

One of his most intriguing ideas in this arena was sadly never developed, or at least never documented, beyond an initial thought: a proposal to surround London with a ‘promenade’, a circular route around the city that would link, to his mind, its most important features. It would run from Hyde Park, south over Vauxhall Bridge to the (now vanished) Vauxhall Gardens, then through south London to Greenwich Park. At that point, Loudon got really ambitious, with a proposed Thames crossing consisting of an iron bridge big enough for ships to sail under. On the other side the route would run in some unspecified way to meet what’s now the City Road, run up to Marylebone and back down to Hyde Park.

This proposal, which he charmingly noted would be inexpensive “with the exception of the bridge” (no, really?), would provide a day’s tour (presumably horse-propelled if you actually wanted enough time to stop and see anything) of the most interesting gardens, scenery and objects close to London. He was clearly on to something: not only the importance of urban green spaces in themselves, but the fact that within a city they could act almost in concert. Today London has several orbital walking routes which link its parks – although massive garden-based bridges, not so much.

Loudon’s green belt plan. Image: BuldingCentre.co.uk.

In 1829 “Hints on Breathing Places for the Metropolis, and for Country Towns and Villages, on fixed Principles”, Loudon would go on to make an even bolder proposal: not just for what we’d now call the green belt, but green belts plural, alternating rings of city and countryside/garden which as a city expanded could keep going until they hit the sea. Although he accepted the grandiosity of such a plan perhaps made it unlikely (the fact that the following year he married a science fiction novelist feels contextually notable here), he emphasises that the important thing is the basic principle: that towns and cities should be planned in such a way that no-one has to live more than a quarter mile from some kind of park, garden or piece of countryside.

Loudon may have seen his legacy as his writings: three years after completing the Arboretum in Derby, he died having spent almost every penny to his name on publishing various expansive and expensive tomes to share his knowledge and promote his ideas, which might seem to have been a bit of fool’s errand given no-one much reads them now. But it’s at least highly probable that Ebenezer Howard, father of the garden city movement, had read Loudon’s ideas.

And while that Derby park may not be world famous itself, it was highly influential on the parks that came after it – including something called Central Park in somewhere called New York, for which the Arboretum was a direct inspiration. Loudon lives on.