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Are you designing places that are detrimental to health?

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

A large group of people gather at a market

How placemaking can improve health outcomes as much as quitting smoking.

Place is one of the three social determinants of health. It is so important to our lives that our postcode is a predictor of our life expectancy. Kids in Australia could be the first generation in history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

If you move to an area that has a much lower life expectancy, you will take on the risk and the life expectancy of that new area very quickly.

VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio, globally-renowned public health expert and advocate.

Health and wellness is (quite rightly) becoming a key desire of our population, propelled forward by the effects of COVID-19 and our younger generations becoming the larger populations in our country.

Some pretty wild data gives us an insight into why these trends are causing values to shift:

  • In our digitally connected world, 1 in 4 of us experience loneliness (KPMG and Groundswell Foundation 2022) which has as much of an impact on our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can take up to 15 years off your life! (Kroll 2022)

  • In Australia, 75% of people have experienced a traumatic event in their lives (and this is probably a higher percentage in Victoria after the COVID-19 lockdowns), which can impact the way we cope with the stresses of day-to-day life.

  • Half our population is not getting the recommended amount of physical activity per week. (AIHW 2022)

As we become more conscious of our health and wellbeing needs, people have a greater desire for environments and experiences that lead to a healthier lifestyle. There has never been a more important time to ensure our environments are contributing to our mental and physical health and wellbeing.

So what can placemaking do to help this?

By adopting trauma-informed placemaking techniques, salutogenic design principles and wellbeing-led practice, Village Well have developed a new health and wellbeing training course, and place audit, to support built environment professionals, government and property developers deliver places, design and activation that will make residents happier while improving physical and mental health.

Village Well are hosting a special webinar to launch our new health and wellbeing service offer. 2 May @ 12-noon Melbourne/Sydney time. Go here to register.

How can design to promote healthier lifestyles?

The design of our built environments have a significant impact on both physical and mental health and wellbeing. Familiarity, connection to nature, lighting, spatial planning, and use of colour, texture and materials can have an impact on the experience of a place. Correct use of these and other elements can cause feelings such as safety, welcoming, belonging, and trust.

Studies have shown that timber used in interiors can reduce stress, lowering heart rate and blood pressure (Fell 2022). Orygen and OYH Parkville is a youth mental health clinic, training, education and research in Melbourne, designed by Billard Leece Partnership. The centre was designed with the mental health of its users as the key priority. They use materials and shape to reflect the calming environment the building sits within; surrounded by trees. The considered and careful approach is an example of how spaces can give us positive health benefits.

Orygen and OYH Parkville. Image courtesy of Billard Leece Partnership

How can activation and programming promote healthier lifestyles?

Our built environment alone cannot create healthy lifestyles, but design that encourages connections, paired with curated activations and programs, are key to healthy and supported people. Providing opportunities in place to socialise, celebrate, and engage are help build a strong sense of belonging to community, which result in improved mental and physical health outcomes (Ross 2002).

As part of Village Well's work with Launch Housing on Viv’s Place, Dandenong, a supportive housing for women experiencing domestic violence, we provided a Trauma-Informed Community Activity Plan to assist new residents to feel safe and to build community in place. The program provided soft introductions to encourage engagement and healing, with a future focus of empowerment and opportunities.

One mother who moved in just last week said their first night at Viv’s Place was the first time her son had ever slept through the night. She compared the apartment to sleeping on a cloud, because it was so quiet and comfortable.

Launch Housing

Viv’s Place communal dining room. Image courtesy of Launch Housing and ARM Architecture, Photographer Tatjana Plitt

How can you get implementation right?

Implementation is often where things fall down in placemaking. The best plans in the world can fail to reach the first hurdle due to resourcing challenges. A good placemaking implementation strategy is crucial to the performance of a place for health and wellbeing. One key element of this is for someone, or a group, to step up and drive the bus. In our work with Haven Home Safe, we saw a Community Place Manager hired for their New Epping Residences. They have started implementing Village Well’s Community Activity Plan and provided an on-site and trusted presence whilst the new tenants of 131 apartments got settled into their homes.

Through programming and events residents can help build social connections, which improves resilience and belonging. When a tenant had a flat tyre, she was able to reach out to a neighbour who she had met at an event the week before for help. After their kids started playing together at a ‘Tea on the Terrace’ event, a shy mum started talking with the other mum.

She was overheard saying: "We are going to raise our kids here together."

Connections, from making a new friend to buying groceries where someone knows your name, significantly impact our health and combat loneliness.

New Epping Stage 01 Residences community area. Image courtesy of Riverlee

In summary

The places you shape and create can make local residents happier and healthier, or alternatively, they could be making them sick; sending them into physical and mental decline. This is why placemaking is critical in property development, renewal and asset management, across diverse industries. If we continue to ignore the impacts places can have, it will be to the detriment of future generations’ health, wellbeing and life expectancy.

Be part of the solution! Go here to register for our Health & Wellbeing Placemaking launch webinar, 2 May @ 12-noon Melbourne/Sydney time.

Meet our blog writer

Emma Hall is a talented Placemaker who has a background in both architecture and urban design. She is Village Well's technical lead for social housing and health & wellbeing. Reach out to Emma on:

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