Barry Wilson is Vice President of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design. His practice, Barry Wilson Project Initiatives, have been tackling urbanisation issues in Hong Kong and China for over 20 years. www.initiatives.com.hk
BARRY INTERVIEWS—— CATHARINE WARD THOMPSON AN ECOLOGY OF URBAN SPACES
It was 1989 when I last met Catherine Ward Thompson, the renowned Landscape Architect, health researcher and educator. In those days I was a snivelling student desperately trying to complete a rushed and flimsy final dissertation on the restoration of historic parks at Edinburgh College of Art. Catharine was my tutor, and park restoration was her then specialist subject. But Catharine was also “Head of Department”, and as such a fearsome presence to us students. Despite such youth, Catharine had been rapidly catapulted to the top of her profession, going on to develop an expertise in identifying evidence linking access to landscape with improved mental and physical heath, particularly with kids, teenagers and the elderly. As founder and Director of internationally recognised research centre OPENspace, she has gone on to lead numerous major research grants and collaborations, including highly-innovative research on ‘GreenHealth’ for the Scottish Government and the award-winning consortium, Inclusive Design for Getting Outdoors (I’DGO).
We meet in Guangzhou where Catherine is giving a series of lectures and workshops at the South China University of Technology. Upon meeting after all these years, I wondered how it could have been that her soft speech and naturally gentle demeaner could have so petrified the students in her department all those years ago. “I was just terrified myself”, she confessed upon meeting again, “being so young and then suddenly out of my depth as Head of Department”. My nervousness of old quickly washed away in our interview however as we spent a warm afternoon discussing the vital importance and value to people of all ages and capabilities of having access to quality landscape spaces, wherever they are living.
HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
“The best predictor of how healthy you are and how long you are likely to live is how wealthy you are” Catharine simply explains. This has been true for centuries and continues to be so, even in advanced and sophisticated societies, where those with the poorest health remain typically the least well off. There is however increasing evidence that access to good quality environments, particularly access to natural environments, is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways of reducing social inequalities. “The greatest benefits can be seen to those most disadvantaged”. When she established Openspace in 2001 there was little or no research available on how access to outdoor environments affected health. But as advanced economies have become more aware of the prevalence of noncommunicable diseases such as heart and lung disease, obesity and diabetes, an
urgency for more understanding has developed. Newly completed research in these areas suggests that access to woodlands can be particularly valuable, whilst breathing microbes from soil is good for mental heath and can boost the immune system. Green spaces supply opportunities for social interaction, walking and talking as well as the potential to undertake beneficial activities such as growing food.
FUNDING LANDSCAPE IS EXTREMENTLY COST EFFECTIVE
Obtaining data to demonstrate these facts and therefore emphasise the need for funding has been difficult Catherine suggests. The medical profession has rigorous standards of research and needs strong evidentiary procedures. The term “Quality Adjusted Life Year” (QALY) is a standard by which to measure disease burden, including both the quality and the quantity of life lived. It is used in economic evaluation to assess the value for money of medical interventions.
One QALY equates to one year in perfect health. If an individual's health is below this maximum, QALYs are accrued at a rate of less than 1 per year. QALYs can be used to inform personal decisions, to evaluate programs, and to set priorities for future programs. In the UK a QALY is considered good value if it costs less than 2030 thousand pounds (200,000 RMB) per person. Public space makes significant improvement to QALYs at low cost since as an intervention it can be applied to a very wide group rather than person specific. As an upstream intervention to public health it can have huge benefits.
As many developed countries move towards the problems of ageing populations, making our cities more age enabled to all sectors of society becomes essential. Being active through ageing is important and accessibility to quality landscape makes it easy and enjoyable to get out on foot. Uneven paving, steps, a lack of rest opportunities or toilets can all act as barriers to elderly wanting to take a walk whereas access to daylight, the natural environment and sociable places act as affordances. It’s the challenge of the journey from the home to the destination that has a key impact on decision making. Just one thing wrong or difficult can stop elderly getting out and about, so the design of the physical environment is critically important. Details such as having arms on seats to help get up or down and choosing materials that don’t get too hot or cold can make a huge difference Catharine suggests
In better understanding the issues of keeping active it is noteworthy that people are simply more likely to walk if they are outside rather than being indoors. Getting outside can also help to avoid social isolation and the resultant problems of loneliness and mental health. The body also needs vitamin ‘D’ through sunlight and daylight can affect our circadian rhythms and impact sleep quality. Technology providing a ‘virtual and artificial landscape’ can never replace the real thing.
Interestingly the elderly appear to have differing attitudes to the type of landscape they encounter based significantly on childhood experiences. Those who were used to ‘natural’ woodlands and landscapes in their youth still seek them out in their older age, whereas enclosed, vegetated spaces can be threatening to those who were less accustomed to them when young. They may find they “don’t feel safe” or are uncomfortable with isolation. So cities need a variety of landscape types, suitable to different users, an ECOLOGY OF URBAN SPACES as Catharine repeatedly emphasises, where they could act to greatly enhance overall biodiversity.
RESHAPING OUR CITIES
Reclaiming streets from cars, or “boxes of metal” as Catherine likes to call them, can be a major driver towards improved public health, particularly in removing roadside pollution. However more than that we need better pedestrian environments, which are pleasant, shaded and can activate the senses. Hearing birdsong, smelling flowers, and enjoying the change of weather and season are important. Currently “cars are king in the urban environment and pedestrians are second class citizens”, states Catharine, becoming a touch animated. Roads are particularly barriers to the elderly who worry about having time to cross, have to deal with level changes and can have trouble assessing speeds and movements of vehicles.
A seeming renaissance of cycling as a popular form of urban transport is welcomed by Catharine, but it does need a separate and dedicated space for pedestrians, , who worry about sharing small spaces with fast moving bikes and particularly e-bikes, a challenge in particular for the elderly. Her preferred mode of transport in her own twilight years would perhaps be some form of “trike” which could perhaps carry luggage, have a canopy against sun and rain and would be upright and stable. Of course, with technology changing so fast there is a good chance that such a vehicle will be autonomous, so she won’t need to worry about “handling” it or even maintenance or parking as urban dwellers continue to adapt to a sharing economy, which should relieve her future worry and mental stress. Getting rid of all those ‘metal boxes’ is certainly something she welcomes.
There has been a long tradition of understanding the strong links between the landscape and personal heath, however the last century seems to have alienated the two, with the growth of modern medicine obscuring some long standing basic understandings. Public health is something that needs to work across all sectors and all environments and investment in landscape as a public health tool is extremely low in cost and high in benefit compared to intensive corrective public medical costs. It takes a long time however to fully measure and witness the return on investment to society at large of quality landscape provision and of its recurrent maintenance cost, perhaps even decades. How to convince funding bodies of the real and valuable benefits that can be accrued?
Perhaps we are at a point when society is again realising the importance of the natural environment, and our future cities will be clean, green and inclusive. Catharine’s pioneering work and evidentiary contribution to the health benefits of urban landscape will have proved invaluable by that time. We welcome her continued endeavours.