Urban Design and Health – The Spaces in Between

After the success of the first AHSNZ conference in Christchurch we had many people who were unable to make it contact us hungry for more information. In response we have requested that our speakers write a post on their presentation. Reading it on your computer screen pales in comparison to hearing it in person, in a room full of like-minded passionate people, but we felt that these talks were too important. So, without further ado, allow us to present the AHSNZ Conference series of posts. Let us know what you think, which presentations sparked your interest, and what topics you would like to see addressed at our next conference in Wanaka on October 25.

Urban Design and Health: The Spaces in Between

by James Murphy

It’s hard to imagine any other species living in the concrete jungle the way that we do, collectively using asphalt roads and concrete footpaths, or living in high-rise buildings. No other animal has done what we’ve done: brilliantly designed cities that consist of networks of highways and roads modelled around the beautiful pieces of architecture in which we reside.

In fact, it’s quite impressive the way we have designed and manufactured our entire habitat! But it should come as no surprise that this is what would be considered a synthetic environment; it is not our natural habitat.


We currently live in an urban environment, which is something we have created, and it’s becoming increasingly prevalent across the globe. In fact, globally, a dramatic shift towards urbanisation is occurring. In 2010 46.6% of the world lived in an urban environment, and it’s predicted that in 2050 ~69% of us will! (1)

Does it matter that we’re not living in our “natural” habitat?

Does natural mean better?

In other animals we can see that transitioning from the wild into a zoo is damaging to their health. These animals have increased rates of chronic diseases and behavioural problems, like cardiovascular disease, and depression or anxiety. They are even medicated when they experience these problems, much like we are. (2)

Bringing some of their natural habitat back into their zoo environment reduces these negative health outcomes! (3)

We are animals, after-all, despite our many incredible successes as a species. And in biological terms our current situation can only be described as habitat loss.

That’s alright though! We’re humans, and we can survive anywhere. Right? Well, let’s look at how well we’re doing:

According to the World Health Organisation

  • 1 in 10 adults are diabetic
  • Cancer accounted for 13% of all 2008 deaths
  • Over 1.4 billion obese adults in 2008
  • Trends indicate >70 million obese infants/children by 2025
  • Depression predicted to be leading cause of disease burden by 2030

Many humans all over the globe are experiencing health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, cancer or depression. These rates of chronic health issues are alarming, and are indicative of something having gone wrong somewhere along the line.

Did urbanisation, or habitat loss, have an impact on our health?

We may be able to shed some light by asking the reverse question and identifying if we can benefit from an increased exposure to green-space.

Increase in physical activity

One of the most discussed means by which we may benefit from an increased availability of green spaces is through an increase in exercise that might result. It’s pretty well-known that the environment we live within can either facilitate or constrain physical activity (4).

Access to green spaces has been shown to facilitate physical activity, and exercise in green-space has been shown to confer positive health benefits. (5)

However, these studies don’t necessarily portray benefits of nature itself. It is difficult to control for whether the green-space is helpful or whether exercise itself is causing these effects, and it could even be a synergistic effect as many benefits of each are claimed by nature alone and exercise alone.

Nature and stress reduction


Some of the more interesting effects that being immersed in nature can have on people relate to psychological changes.

I think one of the strongest cases for nature immersion improving our well-being lies in the fact that it can induce a similar mindset to that of meditation or mindfulness-based stress reduction. There is a lot of research coming out now about mindfulness-based stress reduction and its role in reducing stress and improving health and well-being. (6)

There is an area of our brain, called the Medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC), which becomes active when we are thinking about ourselves, worrying about the future, or worrying about our life. It plays a role in our response to either stressful or rewarding events. It’s involved with the feedback loop that shuts off stress hormone production after we experience stress. Interestingly, if your mPFC becomes hyperactive during stress exposure, you are more likely to experience a negative outcome as a result. (7)

Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction or meditation helps calm down our mPFC, making it less over-active. (8) Being immersed in a natural environment causes us to be very mindful in a similar way, and it may result in similar outcomes. This could implicate nature immersion in improving stress resilience.

Refocusing our attention

One of the problems with a modern urban environment is that it is over-stimulating. It demands our constant attention and focus, whether we realise it or not, and this leads to mental fatigue.


Imagine we are walking down the street. We approach the intersection as a car passes by, then another car, and another car; at the same time we are looking at the billboards with food advertising; noticing the construction workers with orange vests near them; but then we hear cars to our right honking their horns which brings our attention over there, and we see the light turn yellow as one car speeds up revving its engine and another slams on its breaks with a sound of squealing tyres; and then the light directing traffic in the other direction changes green, and a car passes by in front of us, and then another car, and another…. You get my point!

The parts of our brain responsible for focus and attention rely on an energy supply, much like a muscle relies on energy when in use. Like a muscle, there is a limited supply of energy and we can’t properly use this part of our brain once energy has run out. (9) When a muscle is in a passive state again, energy within the muscle is able to regenerate.

Nature restores our focus, because our attention is caught by aspects of the natural environment, but this does not require a conscious effort to sustain. (10) This is the type of passive focus that is restorative!

In this mindfulness-similar state that nature puts our brain into, nature is restorative by its ability to recover our capacity to focus and direct attention.

Interaction with natural microbiome

Bacteria are some of the oldest organisms known, and they are everywhere! They have been everywhere long before we were anywhere! Which means that as long as we have existed on this earth, there have been bacteria around us.

In the process of evolution, we would have been exposed to various bacteria based on the environment with which we interacted. However, our environment has changed. We know that there are different micro-organisms that live within natural (or even rural) compared with urban environments. (11)

When we think of bacteria, we generally tend to think of sickness, or something that we don’t want. But we actually have bacteria in us all the time –more bacteria, in fact, than the number of cells in our body. They aren’t just living there doing nothing, either. One important thing they do for us, is to help educate our immune system! (12)

Something that inevitably happens to our exposure to different micro-organisms as biodiversity in our habitat decreases, is that the variety and quantity decreases. If we have less of these organisms educating our immune system, we can become more prone to mounting incorrect immune responses to different situations. (12) This could result in chronic inflammatory disorders such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune conditions, or depression.

This slightly defective immune inflammatory response can also change the way we react to stressful situations, by causing us to mount an excessive stress response!

So a higher level of biodiversity can help regulate our immune system. (13)

Evolutionary framework

While the science around the role of nature in our health is still young, we need to look towards evolutionary framework for answers.

We must ask the question “does this make sense from an evolutionary perspective?”

I think the answer to this question is a quite obvious and large, “YES!”

Evolutionary biologist Edward Owen Wilson proposed the Biophilia Hypothesis (14) to explain this, and he defines it as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. He proposed the possibility that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology.

We can see across many ancient civilisations and ancestral cultures that nature was respected and appreciated; and we have examples in art and from stories. Many ancestral civilisations, including New Zealand Maori, viewed nature and humans as one in the same. We are a part of nature no matter how hard we try to separate ourselves from it.

The Role of Urban Green-spaces

Since we are undoubtedly moving towards urbanisation globally, and it doesn’t seem like a probability that everyone is going to give up on modern living and run off to live in the woods (nor should they) I think the obvious answer is to take advantage of pre-existing nature, as well as to continue to add, aspects of our natural environment into the urban areas.

The availability of parks and presence of various trees and plants and gardens is important for our health, and so is the preservation of and access to natural environments outside of our urban homes. We can:

  • walk through a row of trees, or observe the river flow and bird life to restore our focus
  • spend time immersed in nature when possible, such as a longer trail walk or playing with friends and family in a park on a weekend
  • interact with nature by touching nearby plants and dirt to increase our exposure to a variety of micro-organisms
  • keep pictures of nature scenes close by and have plants around the house

New Zealand is famous globally for its availability of beautiful nature: you could drive anywhere from ten minutes to four hours and immerse yourself amongst incredible and varied natural environments here. If you are a local, ask yourself: am I neglecting this wonderful resource of vital energy, mental focus, and health? Am I taking for granted what many people in the world spend considerable time and money trying to experience? If you don’t live within 30 minutes of the wilderness, that’s no excuse.


Be proactive and use the natural resources available to you. Take a picnic lunch to the local park, devise “the greenest” walking route to your workplace, pack the car and take a road trip to the country on a weekend.

Today, we spend too much time inside and too little time out in nature. We can have all of the green-spaces in the world at our doorstep but if we remain inside it will have little purpose.

Nature is out there. We just have to make sure that we Go Outside!


photo 4 (1) - Copy 

Connect with James:
Web:  www.evolvedhuman.com
Twitter: @primalRUSH



Upcoming Events


    Urban Design and Health – The Spaces in Between

    October 24 @ 11:16 pm

One thought on “Urban Design and Health – The Spaces in Between

Comments are closed.