Green, open public spaces will foster a healthy society
According to a study by the World Health Organisation, recent estimates show that physical inactivity accounts for 3.3% of global deaths.
Over the past several months, this column has consistently exhorted people to enjoy the streets and public spaces in the city. I have spoken about improving walkability, public transport, markets and encouraging social interaction for a better city. Besides these, there are health reasons for advocating more open spaces, more green spaces as well as more active lifestyles.
Traditionally, especially in rural societies, people had several public and semi-public spaces where they interacted with others, including the aangan and the well or even the spaces just outside the homes. Many activities spilled out into the streets. We still see some of this in cities – for example women sitting outside their homes in winter cutting vegetables. This way they get some sun as well as social contact.
We read a lot today about the problem of childhood obesity resulting from many factors, including the lack of exercise and an increasing sedentary lifestyle. Many of us work in offices where we are tied to desks and confined spaces for many hours of the day. Often a full day of work is followed by a commute and then a continued sedentariness through the evening. There are solid health reasons for encouraging more people to use public spaces. A WHO study says that recent estimates show that physical inactivity, linked to poor walkability and lack of access to recreational areas, accounts for 3.3% of global deaths.
Gurugram has many running and cycling groups and stepping out early in the morning, we can see several people using the streets. You can see workers, including women cycling to their place of work. Yet we build streets that provide no space for the cyclist or the runner or ever the pedestrian. The Raahgiri has been one positive example of claiming streets for people and activity.
In addition to physical health, there is also the issue of mental health. Many researches have shown that people living in greener environments showed fewer symptoms of mental distress. A study in Hong Kong found that people who lived near parks and open spaces suffer less anxiety. Interestingly, the study also found that proximity was more associated with usage than just the availability of open spaces. This means that while big open spaces like India Gate or even biodiversity park are wonderful, we also need many small open spaces near dwellings so that they can use them regularly. My office has a lovely neighbourhood park next to it which I walk in during a break from work.
People of all ages use our neighbourhood parks in Gurugram who find it a space to meet others. Engaging with people, talking to others is a great contributor to good mental health. Loneliness can be exacerbated by urban life where people do not find ways to engage with others. Senior citizens attest to the fact that their daily walks are often the high point of their day where they can meet people, exercise and as well as be with nature.
Cities need to plan more green open spaces as well greening all parts, including the streets. Driving from Gurugram to Delhi, you can see the difference in the amount of green on the streets. There is a need to preserve the green cover as well as continuously plant more trees. The impact of improving the environment as well as creating more liveable cities is visible in the improvement in people’s health and mental well-being.
(Co-founder and CEO of Safetipin, the author works on issues of women’s safety and rights in cities)