Kristian Villadsen: We need healthy cities

According to Kristian Villadsen, partner and director at the renowned Danish architecture firm Gehl Architects, health promotion plays an important role in urban planning.

Kristian Villadsen

The following text is an excerpt of the GDI study "Prevention in Transition" which can be downloaded free of charge.

GDI: To what extent are health-related factors included in urban planning?

Kristian Villadsen: Health plays an important role in urban planning in several respects. In this context, we focus on simplifying healthy behaviour as far as possible. In Copenhagen, for example, lots of people ride bicycles. Not necessarily because it is healthy, but because it is easiest and fastest to get around by bicycle.

Many towns and cities are still shaped by the approach of the modernists in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, however, who planned them to make home life, work and leisure very much spatially separate, and to encourage people to go from one place to the next by car. This not only leads to a lack of physical activity: when people take the lift from the underground car park directly to their apartment door, they often fail to interact with anyone else. That makes people feel lonelier, which is also very unhealthy. These days, we are trying to be more sociable again. An example of this is provided by the 15-minute city. That not only encourages exercise, but also social interaction.

What specific format do urban interventions for the promotion of health take?

A great example in which we participated was a project in London on the subject of “food deserts” – places where there are precious few opportunities to buy healthy food. In the vicinity of a school, for instance. The shops nearby offered very little that could be considered healthy. The McDonald’s was the only place where young people were able to stay for any length of time without constantly consuming and spending money.

To address this problem, we worked with the local shops to encourage them to include more healthy food products in their assortments. Secondly, we created a public space where people are able to eat what they buy and also stay there without being forced to consume. This place was designed together with the youngsters. In a design process of this kind, it proved important for the location and food to be ‘Instagram friendly’. The food trucks that we drove there further enhanced the offer, from both the gastronomic perspective and in terms of social media. It also meant that increasing numbers of other people who worked or lived nearby chose to visit the area at their lunchtime. This, in turn, achieved a certain degree of social interaction.

Another example is the waterfront in Shanghai. This offers some 45 kilometres of continuous public space, and is a great place in which to ride a bike, go for a walk and see other people. It is now one of the most photographed places in Shanghai, and has become particularly important as a public place during the coronavirus pandemic. It is interesting to note that in China, some 70% of the population doesn’t own a car. In contrast to Europe, the challenge in China is not in encouraging people to use a bicycle, but in maintaining healthy patterns of mobility.

It all sounds very convincing. What hurdles need to be overcome for a project of this kind, however?

First, there is the argument relating to costs. Building new infrastructure costs money. A recent study in Copenhagen demonstrated that the city saves money with every bicycle kilometre its residents ride. The infrastructure necessary for bicycles is cheaper than that required for cars. People also spend less time in traffic jams, which is another cost to the economy. Added to that are the costs which are saved when a place has a healthier population. The savings, however, may appear elsewhere.

At first, a transport authority has little incentive to spend money that is then saved in the health sector. But as long as traffic, housing, environment or health are regulated by different organisations within a city that speak little to each other, measures that have overarching effects will hardly be tackled.

One could say that desegregation would be necessary here as well. In this way, the strict separation pursued by the modernists isn’t just reflected in the urban architecture, but also in the way in which a town or city is organised. And that doesn’t just mean the organisation of the government departments. Many regulations also date back to that era, which also stand in the way of changing the status-quo towards towns and cities that are more liveable.