Designing Healthy Communities

The role of health & wellbeing in urban design


Today, I had the incredible (and nerve-wracking) opportunity to present at 307 on a topic I’m very passionate about: the role of health and wellbeing in urban design. My speaking note was inspired by the growing role that social determinants of health play on our individual health, and how urban design can influence these social determinants.

If you’ve seen any other good models/exemplars of cities incorporating health and wellbeing into their planning process like Malmö, I would love to know!

Designing healthy communities

As someone who comes from a healthcare background, I joined as a Fellow at Sidewalk Labs excited to explore and imagine the future of health and city services in our cities.

But on the first leg of my research in Copenhagen, I realized it wasn’t just services we should be looking at.

I had stumbled upon Superkilen, a vibrant, expansive park painted with zig zags over hills and valleys. I was dazzled by eclectic amenities reflecting the neighbourhood’s residents. Look, an octopus-shaped slide! Over that way, a Moroccan fountain! It was then and there that I realized, this public park - our built environment - that brought me so much delight and provoked exploration and adventure was also affecting my health.

Community health and wellbeing is something that cross-cuts every single urban pillar - from mobility to housing affordability - and should be a main factor in every design decision to create an integrated, interactive, and intergenerational and diverse city.

Now, you might be wondering, great, that’s a lot of talk. But what actions would you suggest us - developers and city officials - to take?

Well, let’s journey from Copenhagen across the strait, a 30-minute train ride east, to Malmö. Malmö is Sweden’s most diverse and fastest growing city, with a population that represents more than 150 languages, 174 nationalities, and a large group of immigrants and refugees. This multiculturalism is something that I see in ourselves here today.

But diversity does not mean inclusion. In these diverse, growing cities like Malmö and Toronto, we’ve also seen growing inequities. From the systematic bias of our police force against the LGBTQ community, to the startling statistic that inhabitants in parts of Malmö have a seven year shorter life expectancy than others, our cities today do not hold a place for everyone.

Malmö has taken three steps that city builders can learn from in incorporating community health and wellbeing right into the urban design process:

Firstly, Malmö has defined sustainability rigorously from the onset as not just environmental or economic sustainability. They’ve also defined social sustainability with the specific goal of reducing health inequities in its diverse population.

Secondly, Malmö created one of the world’s first Social Sustainability Commissions to lead this work, an independent commission of researchers.

Thirdly, through the Commission’s research, a rigorous, evidence-based wellbeing framework tailored to Malmö with objectives, action items, and indicators has been created for stakeholders to use as a guideline of incorporating health considerations into every stage of the development process; and measuring the success of projects via wellbeing metrics.

We, as city builders, could be doing all of this right here. We should be defining robustly in policies the role of health in our urban pillars; enacting bodies to keep accountability to this work; and conducting research to frame a holistic roadmap for health and wellbeing in our design processes, tailored to our cities.

Ultimately, a city’s health is a city’s wealth. I believe that we can and should be deliberately designing for a city that puts community health and wellbeing first.