It is amazing the people you can meet under the clock in a London railway station - not just in crime novels, or old fashioned (pre-online dating app) romantic dramas, but also to talk about health.
Recently, a colleague suggested a meeting with his friend who might benefit from some knowledge or advice I had. Little did I know how it would be the reverse, and how what I thought might be a general networking chat turned into one of the most diverting conversations I’ve had about health, and not just at Waterloo station.
Annalise Johns is an urban designer who has worked for a long time with local authorities to maximise resilience in local areas for health and wellbeing, looking at things we in the NHS rarely consider, except in theory - sustainable transport, drainage and air quality improvements that can all have a huge impact on us and the long-term environmental quality.
She is compellingly intelligent and passionate about the subject, and she has me from her first point - that you don’t need to look far to be confronted with the peril in which we find both human health and our climate. Are some of the drivers the same? Is it not an obvious sign of how intrinsically linked human health and the environment are?
The power of environment as an influencer is really a source of wonder. Some may recall the astounding Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson, exhibited at the Tate Modern in 2003. The installation consisted of a semi-circle of lamps below a mirror, creating the illusion of the sun, hung at the far end of the Turbine Hall where the floor - a cold, hard, concrete surface - was packed with sunbathers.
Visitors came en masse and stayed at length, basking in the light as though it emitted warmth. This powerful example shows how easily humans are moved by their surroundings and none more so than by nature itself.
The urban lifestyle has effectively stripped away what humans intrinsically need to function: daily physical activity, human interaction, access to green space, measured caloric intake and a clear sense of purpose. Some might argue, as Annalise does, that the result of this is seen in the global rise of mental, physical and sociological illness.
"Access to green space is known to lower blood pressure, eliminate stress, reduce crime, lower hospital admissions and improve mental health."
However, she sees hope in the emergence of biophilia, an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world (E.O. Wilson), and biomimicry, the design and production of materials, structure and systems that are modelled on biological entities and processes.
There is international recognition by WHO and others that environmental integrity is important to human wellbeing. And there is a growing argument that deems nature, and specifically green spaces, including green infrastructure, as essential for reversing the devastating direction in which the world is heading.
Access to green space, which can include merely a view of trees, is known to lower blood pressure, eliminate stress, reduce crime, lower hospital admissions and also has a profound effect on improving mental health. Equally, cities with rich green infrastructure have reduced urban heat effect, better air quality, improved social interaction, lower rates of crime and have higher rates of productivity and growth.
What impact could we have if we could maximise the biodiversity in our cities? Annalise was convinced it would be transformative economically, environmentally and physiologically – imagine it, she said. Shame that garden bridge was a flop, I thought quietly.
It may sound like a luxury when your world is stripped corridors, car interiors and computer screens daily, but Annalise challenged me on when was the last time I unplugged and spent time in a green space, asking me to imagine what a different world it would be if we all took five minutes to do just this, every day.
I didn’t think it would do any harm – I can’t claim to be the outdoorsy type, but there are opportunities to be in nature all around us if we look. I had to run to make that longer route to my next meeting – taking a detour through the park.
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