7 Neighbourhood Necessities (Part 2): Health & Wellbeing

In this blog series I will be exploring the seven neighbourhood necessities that John McKnight and Peter Block write about in their book, The Abundant Community. The first post explored safety and security in the neighbourhood, and in this post we will be looking at health and wellbeing

In new developments, such as the community I am a part of, one of the common topics  is the availability of health services. Just before I sat down to write this, I was having a conversation with some of the staff at our local cafe about the (un)availability of health services, doctors, and hospitals in our region of the city. And there is no doubt this is an issue. Naturally, communities with little access to mental heath services, doctors, hospitals and other professional services, will be less healthy than those that have access. We found this an issue while living in a small rural community that was at least an hour’s drive from a regional centre of any substantial size. This is a problem which communities need to address in order to improve health and wellbeing in the neighbourhood.

However, as the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) write in their report The Case for Healthy Places (Project for Public Spaces, 2016, pg 2):

…[We] also know that only 10-20% of what creates health has to do with access to care services. The rest of what creates health is directly shaped by where we live, work, learn, play and worship.

John McKnight and Peter Block note that the “major factors determining our health are our individual behaviour, social relationships, [and] physical environment.” (The Abundant Community, 2010). Where we live, who we live among, and how we live in that space, has a great impact on our overall health and wellbeing.

Accessibility to Recreational & Green Space 

It is widely known that individuals need to engage in at least 30 mins of physical exercise each day to maintain optimal health – and for children it should be closer to an hour. Physical activity lowers the risk of heart disease, obesity, stroke, diabetes, and also improves mental health. It is crucial that healthy neighbourhoods provide residents with access to sporting facilities, parks, playgrounds, and walking paths that encourage physical activity for people of all ages.

Natural green space in the neighbourhood is also important for a healthy community. There is significant research which suggests that access to open space and natural environments benefits our wellbeing, particularly mental health. In The Case for Healthy Places (PPS, 2016, pg 32), The Wingspread Declaration on Health and Nature notes:

“Whether a city park, a community garden, a tree-lined street, or wilderness—nature in people’s daily lives reduces stress, renews the spirit, connects people to each other and increases physical activity. In short, humans are part of nature, our connection with nature is a fundamental human need, and we believe that access to nature is a basic right.”

The Project for Public Space have seen that outcomes such as life expectancy, mental health, cardio-metabolic conditions, stress, anxiety, and concentration are all linked to the access green space, tree lined streets, and the planting of vegetation along bike paths and in open space (The Case for Healthy Places, pg 33).

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The neighbourhood where we currently live has walking paths along every street which connect residents to local parks and gardens. My family utilises these paths to go walking  nearly every evening. They are well maintained, taking us to a destination we can enjoy, and are aesthetically pleasing to use. In contrast, one of our previous neighbourhoods did not have walking paths in our street which required us to walk on the road or on lawn – not easy when pushing a child in a pram! As a result, we did not walk nearly as often.

It is crucial for recreational and natural, green space to be easily accessed and maintained to a high standard if we are to achieve these outcomes. If the quality and accessibility of parks, gardens, and recreational facilities is poor, then the likelihood of the community utilising these facilities, and therefore gaining the benefits of them, is also lowered.

Healthy Food

This will be the topic of an entire future post. However, it is important to note here that access to fresh, affordable produce is crucial to a neighbourhood’s overall health and wellbeing. When healthy produce is overpriced, or when unhealthy options are cheaper and more accessible, it can impact more than just physical health. Healthy eating is crucial to maintaining a healthy bodyweight, but it is also linked to mental wellbeing.  As a result, is is important to provide opportunities to buy fresh produce, grow food within the neighbourhood, and reduce unhealthy options so that local community member have the best possible chance of becoming and staying healthy.

Social Support

A survey in 2016 has shown that, “One in five Australians have never met their next-door neighbours, while 41 per cent of inner-city dwellers don’t consider themselves acquaintances or friends with their neighbours.” And yet, social connection is closely connected to health and wellbeing. In A Case for Healthy Places (PPS, 2016, pg 14), it is noted that:

Social support—friends, family, and other community networks—helps individuals to meet emotional and practical needs, and belonging to a strong social network that requires communication and mutual obligation makes people feel cared for and valued… people who feel a stronger sense of belonging to their local community tend to live healthier lives and have fewer mental health challenges than those who lack this emotional/spatial connection. Indeed, many studies indicate that a sense of belonging to one’s community has a strong impact on health behaviour change—i.e., the stronger the sense of belonging, the more likely people were to exercise, lose weight or eat more healthily.

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Having community groups and opportunities for people to belong, contribute, and interact in the neighbourhood has been linked to healthier communities on a number of fronts. Social connectivity improves mental health as well as our support mechanisms for when people encounter difficulties in life. While access to healthcare professionals is vital, a reduced social support network means there can be holes in our “healthcare” when professionals aren’t required or feasible.

For instance, the death of a family pet can be quite traumatic and professional healthcare may be required. What is more likely, however, is care from our friends and neighbours as we grieve the loss and move into a new season of life. Without a strong social support network in the neighbourhood, issues of health and mental health which typically do not require professional support may move into a realm which does require them. This places added stress and strain on our national healthcare system as health issues that could be solved within the neighbourhood are outsourced. In Abundant Community, John McKnight and Peter Block note:

When we act together in the neighbourhood, we produce the primary sources of health. When we are disconnected, we create business for the specialists in the medical system. And then, like the police, the medical systems leaders turn the tables back on us and say the major source of our heath is our community action.

Interestingly, strong social support networks and involvement in local community activities have also been linked to increased physical health. In The Case for Healthy Places (PPS, 2016, pg 14), it is noted that, “people who are socially disconnected are between two and five times more likely to die from all causes, compared with those who have close ties with family, friends, and their community.” McKnight and Block also note this in Abundant Community saying:

A nine year study in California found that people with the feast social ties has the highest risk of dying from heart disease, circulatory problems, and cancer. Robert Pulman reports, in ‘Bowling Alone’, that if you belong to no local groups and then join just one, you cut your risk of dying the next year in half.

The Role of Placemaking

Placemaking plays a pivotal role in the health of our neighbourhoods. By creating, redeveloping, and activating public space that provide our neighbourhoods with a wide range of ways to become and maintain our health and wellbeing, we will produce healthier neighbourhoods and healthier cities. Placemaking which keeps a community’s health in mind, needs to focus on physical activity, social interaction, and community.

Working with local government and city developers, placemakers have a role to play in making sure public spaces have a variety of opportunities for physical activity.  Placemakers can ensure that parks and playgrounds are well designed, incorporating spaces for older and younger children to play, have walking and bike paths, as well as open space for larger games and sports. This kind of design creates multi-use destinations, assisting all ages to haver opportunities for physical activity, and thus improving the health and wellbeing of our communities.

Similarly, placemmkaing projects such as community gardens, farmers markets, and fresh food co-ops, assist in bringing fresh produce to the neighbourhood. This will improve access to fresh food, helps with food security, and also promotes social interaction and support. As people garden together, participate in the activities of a farmers market, or meet neighbours through a food co-op, social isolation is reduced and connection to social support structures within the neighbourhood are improved.

It is also important that we encourage people to participate in smaller placemaking activities, like inviting neighbours over for a meal, simply joining an existing local community group, and then encouraging others in the neighbourhood to do the same. These small acts will help promote and grow health and wellbeing in our communities. Through collaboration and collective efforts we can reduce the stress and strain on professional healthcare and make our neighbourhoods the centre of our health and wellbeing.

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