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Top urban health and well-being trends 2021

Our way of life has a significant impact both on our health as well as on the Earth’s environment and climate. A number of the urban challenges we face, but also many of the solutions, have risen in prominence during coronavirus pandemic.

Physical and Mental Health

Last December, a court in Great Britain became the first to establish that air pollution had actively contributed to a person’s death. The case concerned Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died in London in 2013, she was only nine years old. The girl had been living next to a street with heavy traffic in southeast London, and high nitrogen dioxide emissions from the traffic were found by the court to have contributed to her death.

However, the cities’ harmful effects on our physical health have been known for a long time. More recent are the findings that we can also be afflicted by mental illness specifically as a result of living in a city. The risk of developing depression is 20 per cent higher among city dwellers than among those living outside cities or in the countryside, according to studies of 4.4 million Swedes by scientists at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.[1] The risk of developing more severe mental illnesses such as psychosis is, according to the same study, 77 per cent higher for townspeople.

There could be many reasons for this, including a number of social factors. But several studies also show that the physical environment with high levels of noise and air pollution and, not least, the absence of nature and green spaces are contributing factors.

Urban green spaces, such as parks, playgrounds, and residential greenery, can promote mental and physical health

Urban green spaces, such as parks, playgrounds, and residential greenery, can promote mental and physical health

Investing in living space

Barcelona is one of a number of cities that is investing heavily in green spaces. At least 80 per cent of every street in the city is to be shaded by trees during the summer. A public competition in May will decide the final design of the green spaces. The purpose of the plan is to ensure that no inhabitant will be more than 200 metres from a green space and is part of the Catalan capital’s new town planning concept aiming to create so-called superblocks.

In Barcelona, where central areas are dominated by a grid of large blocks, work has been underway for several years to create these superblocks, with the streets between them being closed off to cars. The plan is to create a full 500 superblocks in the Spanish city. So far, five superblocks have been created. The goal is to make 70 per cent of Barcelona’s streets free from cars. According to a study published in Environment International, Barcelona’s superblocks are estimated to save close to 700 lives each year through reduced emissions, less noise, heat relief, more green areas, and inhabitants’ increased physical activity.[2]

The hyperlocal city, planning for convenience, 15 min to one minute…

A number of the world’s major cities have adopted similar new city planning concepts aiming at satisfying the inhabitants’ work, leisure, and shopping needs within “self-sufficient districts”, where people can get by with a minimal private use of cars.
The key to this concept is creating neighbourhoods and districts where everything the inhabitants need is within only a short walking or cycling distance.

In 2019, the innovation and entrepreneurship professor Carlos Moreno at Sorbonne in Paris coined the “15-minute city” concept. He advocates a reorganisation of the French capital’s arrondissements into a network of self-sufficient districts. Work, homes, shops, entertainment, education, and healthcare – according to Moreno’s vision, all of these should be accessible within the same time as a commuter used to have to wait at a railway platform.

15 minute city by Prof. C. Moreno, Paris Sorbonne IAE, Illustration by Micaël

Multifunctional services and spaces

Moreno’s vision of the 15-minute city is also based on his research on achieving a better rhythm in cities, which requires us to develop more multifunctional services. A building, Moreno argues, could have several varying functions throughout the day. A school, for example, could be used for other activities during the weekends. He also advocates more buildings that mix housing and places of work.

The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has become very interested on the 15-minute city idea. Limiting car traffic and creating more space reserved for pedestrians and cyclists are common first measures. Other changes present in the plans for Paris include turning inaccessible roofs into open parks. Schoolyards will become open sports venues in the evenings.

The one-minute city concept

The 15-minute city and the 1-minute city are concepts that brings people and services closer together.

In Sweden, beginning in Stockholm, an even more local concept was launched in autumn 2020; ”the one-minute city” concept named Street Moves focuses on the street environment right outside our doors.

Götgatan – Trying something new

Götgatan in Stockholm. Sweco Architects in Sweden, illustration: Tobias Phersson. Client: Trafikkontoret, City of Stockholm

The project promotes the use of interactive kits that can help change how we use the city’s streets. With the help of the kit, councils or inhabitants will be able to quickly create spaces for playing, outdoor gyms, growing plants, social hubs, or other things that will bring life to the street.

Improving accessibility and safety for urban bikers

Engelbrektsgatan in Stockholm. Sweco Architects in Sweden, visualisering: Jonas Johansson. Client: Trafikkontoret, City of Stockholm

One clear sign of increased interest in city development is that Ikea is now also showing interest in what is happening outside the four walls of home. The Swedish furniture giant has begun a multi-year collaboration with the city of Helsingborg to develop solutions for increased quality of life in a smarter and more sustainable town by creating new infrastructure for jobs and entrepreneurship in residential areas. Initially, the collaboration is focusing on an organic vegetable garden that is to be planted in central Helsingborg, where inhabitants and other actors will make use of and develop social commitment, competence, and fellowship in the area. Moreover, a kitchen is being planned, where produce from the vegetable garden will be cooked, as well as a market where vegetables from the garden and cooked food from the kitchen will be sold.

A preview of this kind of hyperlocal life has been witnessed all over the world as a result of the isolation and lockdowns experienced by many as a result of the pandemic.

The hyperlocal life has been witnessed all over the world. How to rethink our city centers to develop liveable and active urban areas?

Rethinking our city centres

Currently, the reduction in commuting and the resulting and possibly future of working from home, more online shopping, and less social collaboration such as physical meetings and conferences will likely decrease demand for space in city centres for offices, shops, and perhaps even homes, and increase it in the suburbs.

This could, in turn, mean redefining city centres, where certain functions and activities are leaving city centres and others are starting to move in. Here, the challenge for city planners and real estate owners will be to facilitate redesign and reconstruction for new functions and activities such as cultural activities, sports, and outdoor activities. One recent example is Sweden’s most famous department store, the Nordiska Kompaniet, NK, in the middle of the City of Stockholm, which in times of buying online is looking for new ways and which has now built padel courts on its rooftop.

The challenge for city planners and real estate owners will be to facilitate redesign and reconstruction for new functions and activities such as cultural activities, sports, and outdoor activities

Travel trends and solutions

The pandemic has also changed the way we travel. In Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg, total travel decreased by 17 per cent last year, when compared to 2019. The largest downturn, 31 per cent, was within public transport. Car travel has diminished by 8 per cent, and travel on foot is estimated to have fallen by about 24 per cent. Meanwhile, cycling has increased by about 8 per cent.

Increase in demand of shared bicycles in European countries.

In England, the share of people cycling at least once a week reached 16 per cent by June 2020, twice as much as during the first few lockdown weeks earlier during the spring. Nextbike, which runs systems with shared bicycles in several European countries, reported an increase in demand by 35 per cent in April and May compared with one year earlier.
The company Eco-Counter, which supplies technology for measuring bicycle passages for Swedish councils, shows that the number of bicycle passages during December and January this winter was 5.5 per cent higher than during the same months a year ago in the councils using their technology. Compared with the same months two years ago, the increase is a full 36.3 per cent.

Public transport has lost large parts of its ticket sales during the coronavirus pandemic, risking a delay in the transition to more climate-friendly means of transport, such as electric buses.

Innovations in transport solutions

In the shadow of the pandemic, which also contributed to yet a few other delays with interruptions in production and supply chains, 2020 still became the definitive breakthrough for the electric car, as all large car manufacturers finally launched full-fledged electric models. Meanwhile, more and more information is emerging that both Apple and Sony are nearing launches of cars of their own, electric ones of course, which would mean new milestones in the development of mobility in the same way that Tesla paved the way for electrification. According to the Reuters news agency, Apple’s autonomous car could be launched by 2024. The Apple car also promises to have a new type of battery that will offer a longer range and be cheaper and safer compared with today’s batteries. According to sources, the new battery technology will allegedly be as revolutionary as the first iPhone model.

The outright electrification of the motor car fleet, regardless of how fast it could take place, is, however, not enough to reach the climate goals. That will also require a reduction of private car use by radically improving the conditions for public transport users, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Several European cities are now offering Mobility as a Service

Several cities are trying to do this by using new technology. They are offering Mobility as a Service, MaaS. In Berlin, for example, there is a mobile phone app, Jelbi, where several shared vehicle services such as rented bicycles, electric vehicles of various kinds, and taxis are included, as well as public transport. A total of 27,000 vehicles are connected to the app. Malmö and Copenhagen are now eyeing similar solutions in order to facilitate the inhabitants’ and visitors’ mobility. Door-to-door transportation, making use of different kinds of vehicle, will be possible to book via a single app.

In Oslo, inhabitants’ mobility is to be boosted by autonomous vehicles, minibuses that will augment the current public transport network by offering new “last mile” services. The project is estimated to begin during the first quarter this year.

Our cities and urban areas are constantly changing. Hubs of innovation with trends following global development often leading national and international progression. The Urban Insight knowledge platform and network stands at the crossroads of sustainability and the latest innovative use of technology.

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