Digital placemaking for health and wellbeing


7 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Man-made tree structures covered in plant-life and soft purple lighting, against the night sky

The imperative for our environments to support our health and wellbeing is high on the agendas of policy and practice worldwide – not to forget the agendas of citizens. This article explores some ways that location-based digital technologies are being used to help create more liveable urban spaces. As such, it shows that a digital placemaking approach is a key element in creating the types of places where we wish to live.

Originally published in October 2018.

City building and quality of life are indelibly linked.

In Copenhagen, policymakers have invested heavily in infrastructure for cyclists, planting flat roofs with vegetation, and offering free stress clinics for citizens.

As a result, the Danish capital is one of the healthiest and happiest cities in the world. Denmark as a whole holds a top four rank in the UN Happiness Index, and Copenhagen itself is a consistent leader in the World Health Organisation Healthy Cities initiative, which it joined in 1987.

The city has also invested heavily in digital infrastructure. Copenhagen aims to become the world’s first fully digitally-integrated city, improving public access to basic data about citizens, businesses and real estate. The idea here is to streamline administration and provide crucial contextual data for Copenhagen’s 250 companies working on smart city innovations.

Copenhagen is an example of how seriously the relationship between people, place and tech is being taken by cities worldwide. Unhealthy environments eat away at happiness and life expectancy: so how are placemakers around the world using data and design innovations to turn the tide?

Woman in profile, writing on a chalkboard against a dusk outdoor background with festoon lighting
A participant provides feedback at Calvium’s Ideascape: Porth Teigr event

Healthy placemaking: what it means and who defines it

Health is an absolute priority for the placemakers of the present and future. The UN’s Hidden Cities report shows that the health threat facing urban populations could cripple global healthcare systems as they currently exist.

Placemaking projects that aim to regenerate and support communities should acknowledge the health inequities in our cities, and create environments that benefit the health and wellbeing of the people who live, work and play in them.

The WHO likes to use the term ‘health setting’ when talking about placemaking in its Healthy Cities: by this, they mean “the place or social context in which people engage in daily activities in which environmental, organisational and personal factors interact to affect health and wellbeing.”

WHO policy aims to create health-supportive environments, with basic sanitation and hygiene needs covered, access to healthcare provided, and a good quality of life as the end goal. They’re clear that being a Healthy City isn’t about leading the world or meeting universal targets: it’s about “a commitment to improve a city’s environs and a willingness to forge the necessary connections in political, economic and social arenas”.

In the UK, the Design Council uses ‘healthy placemaking’, defining it as: “Tackling preventable disease by shaping the built environment so that healthy activities and experiences are integral to people’s everyday lives”. As designers, they’ve found that buildings, streets, parks and neighbourhoods can support physical and mental health, or erode them: car-oriented environments and hostile public spaces keep people isolated and sedentary. Their goal is to downsize and regenerate, driving public policy toward compact, mixed-use, walkable neighbourhoods, with tree-lined streets and parks.

Similarly, Public Health England – a government body – says healthy placemaking “takes into consideration neighbourhood design (such as increasing walking and cycling), improved quality of housing, access to healthier food, conservation of, and access to natural and sustainable environments”.

The policies and interests are well aligned: so how are people using digital technologies to help make these visions a reality?

How digital placemaking improves health and wellbeing

Digital placemaking solutions are perfectly placed to feed into urban health and wellbeing agendas. Some programmes for improvement start with data: data collected from public engagement activities and technologies, such as the Urban Mind study and app by King’s College London and the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.

Urban Mind is an app that asks users, three times a day, to answer questions about the environment around them and how it makes them feel. After two weeks the app feeds back a report of their moods and feelings in particular spaces, and that data can be used to inform and design cities that are more supportive of residents’ mental health.

The planning initiatives that personal health data can support and shape are genuinely groundbreaking: we’re talking the kind of IoT-integrated, eco-friendly, car-proof urban environments that are redesigning Barcelona one block at a time. Green space and a people-first environment – one that’s actually pleasant and stimulating to be in, with room for communities to flex their cultural muscles – are integral to wellbeing, and need to be built into a placemaking project at ground level.

Virtual placemaking is also helping to improve people’s approach to their health, with projects such as Wavelength VR. This library of evidence-based content for children is available to download as mobile apps, and helps manage pain on a daily basis by enhancing their environmental experience. The basic idea is simple and classic: exploring a virtual world distracts the brain from focusing on pain. It may not be working with physical locations, but it’s definitely using tech to help people explore places and feel better.

But what about making the most of the environments that already exist? The idea of using biometric data to guide urban planning and system design has been around for a while, and is now much more viable thanks to a new generation of fitness apps and wearables. CARS – the Context-Aware Recommender System – harnesses the sensor and communication infrastructure of smart cities to read user activities, build up a sense of the city’s overall healthiness, and provide personalised recommendations to individual users.

What does that mean in real terms? Well: for a user with asthma or another respiratory condition, knowing where the air pollution’s lowest and having a breathable, safe route around town on call can make a massive difference to wellbeing. The same is true for safe road cycling routes (avoiding the heaviest traffic in town), and walkable routes for users at varying levels of fitness and mobility.

Leeds leads the way in smart health innovation in the UK, developing integrated approaches to health and care services that ease interactions between people and places. Leeds is a partner in the EU’s ActiveAge program, which uses Internet of Things technology to provide sustainable independent living for older people, based on the work of caregivers, service providers and public authorities, integrating the existing services with new technologies and online services.

The opportunities for digital placemaking to enhance or transform people’s health and sense of wellbeing are massive. The need to focus our attention on this area is equally huge. As we’ve seen, there are many and varied examples of projects that harness technologies to create happier and healthier cities. Indeed, Calvium’s research into digital placemaking for Porth Teigr Cardiff Bay presented four different projects that addressed ‘health, happiness and wellbeing’ at the location. In order to design the types of cities where their citizens can thrive, it’s essential that we embrace the possibilities that digital placemaking affords.

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