Posted Dec 4 2023 | By Patricia Garcia Perez

Happy and Healthy Communities

What makes a great city? We reignited this discussion a few months ago in a panel event hosted by Levitt Bernstein, as part of the 10th anniversary of the Manchester studio. Insightful thoughts were shared across the panel, made up of a diverse group of young professionals, sparking a prompt debate within the audience about what makes people decide to live in our cities and what they value the most.

At a similar time, I started reading 'Happy City' by Charles Montgomery. In this, the author asks an open question to everyone: “Do we live in neighbourhoods that make us happy?.” It seems to me, that a Happy City is synonymous with a Great City. Many studies have examined the relationship between the built environment and health. From these studies, the question of how and why the environment influences health and human behaviour draws many answers that may feel subjective or difficult to quantify. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of these studies have come to the same conclusion: happier communities are the ones living in attractive, walkable, and environmentally friendly places which enable social interactions and trust in others.


Are you living in a walkable neighbourhood?

I grew up in a small village in the north-west of Spain. I have good memories of my childhood, filled with joy and exciting adventures. I spent my free time after school playing with freedom with other children living in the same neighbourhood. The streets were pedestrian-friendly and had a human and domestic scale. I remember feeling safe and part of a "big family” or community. This is one of the experiences that I most value from my childhood, having the freedom to play and walk around, exploring nature in the rain and in the sun and throughout the different seasons of the year.

Nowadays, as an adult I have full access and freedom to walk around the streets and public spaces, even those outside of my village! However, as adults, we often find our walkable experience compromised by environmental factors such as air and noise pollution, littering, traffic and annoying parking habits. Ultimately, how often we want to walk along the same route, comes down to how enjoyable our walking experience is.

More than ever, to meet the net zero target, we need to start making real changes in our lifestyles, reducing the use of private cars and maximising walkability and the use of sustainable ways of transport. For this to happen, the walkable experience needs to be safe, inclusive, and attractive for everyone. Public transport must be more accessible and within a 10-minute walking distance of any residential development. As advocates in the field, we need to support the densification of urban areas and avoid urban sprawl where reasonable walking distances to basic facilities are difficult to achieve.

I recently became a mum and during my maternity leave, I got to spend many hours walking. I used to go to the park and to my local high street to do the grocery shopping. After a few weeks, I realised how unpleasant it was to walk with a pram along those streets. Along my usual route, there were areas with low levels of surveillance which, particularly now as a new mum, made me feel unsafe. I also found all kinds of obstacles in my way, such as overgrown trees, a sea of bins and parked cars. It was quite a demoralising experience and, unless we make these walking experiences more accessible, safer and attractive for people, the aspiration to maximise walkability and reduce the use of cars will not be met.


Working collaboratively towards walkable neighbourhoods:

In the past, the design of our streets has responded to a cultural and political prioritisation of cars over pedestrians. To achieve walkable neighbourhoods, this must be reversed. Unfortunately, this is not a simple task, it is a long-term process that requires the involvement of many professionals and stakeholders and where coordination and communication are paramount to achieving a successful result.

We must all work outside of our silos and ensure a collaborative approach, opening a dialogue with planners, engineers, politicians, developers, and local authorities to identify the barriers and enablers to achieving walkable neighbourhoods that support social life, better health, and quality of life.

What I value most from my experience at Levitt Bernstein is the collaborative approach to design. This has proven critical to achieving a high-quality design response which ends up leading to successful places, woven into the surrounding context and well-integrated within the existing community.


Community engagement should be a key driver in the path to creating better places:

There is a clear benefit in working collaboratively with local communities to ensure a successful result. At Levitt Bernstein, we encourage clients to listen carefully to our communities and to co-design a comprehensive design response with them throughout the different stages of the project. We must listen to people who have been living in the same neighbourhood for years and who have better knowledge of current issues. It is important to organise inclusive community events that provide equal opportunities for all to be listened to and participate in engaging activities. Local communities, rightly, value being included in the process and feeling part of the team that will change their lives, which if done well, will be for the better. This process also fosters stewardship in the community which provides long-term benefits to the management and maintenance of shared communal spaces.

Ultimately, to achieve healthier communities, built environment professionals need to be more aware of how design impacts human behaviour and increase this awareness within our communities in close collaboration with councils and local authorities. This process requires a “mind shift” from society which is only achievable by working closely with our communities towards safer and more inclusive walkable neighbourhoods.