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UCL Festival of Culture: Urban Well-being

By utnvlru, on 31 May 2016

urban-wellbeingAs part of the UCL Festival of Culture, Dr Gustav Milne – Honorary senior lecturer in the UCL Institute of Archaeology –  gave a talk on Tuesday 24th May, entitled ‘Urban well-being: How to live paleolithically-correct lives in a 21st Century City’.

The idea that we as humans are not necessarily designed for the urban environments that many of us now dwell in is not necessarily a new one, but the extent to which this affects our health and life expectancy is more strikingly marked than might be expected.

Gustav began by outlining how our biology evolved thousands of years ago to support the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and explained that while the environments we live in have changed, our basic physiology hasn’t. We were told that our biological legacy dates back 6 million years – our physiology and lung system have not really developed since then.

Gustav mentioned the Grand Challenges project that UCL Archaeology has partnered in with Transport for London and Arsenal football club, along with several other organisations, which examined the health profiles of different social groups and populations within Greater London.

The research carried out for this project discovered a noticeable difference in life-expectancy between residents in boroughs with large areas of green space, from those who live which are densely built-up and populated. Contrary to what we often hear, the figures obtained during this research indicate that it’s not about social class or income but where you live.

In Richmond, one of London’s greenest boroughs, average life-expectancy is 81.5 and residents can be expected to stay in good health until the average age of 70.3; whereas in Tower Hamlets – one of the ‘greyest’ boroughs, its only 76.7, and good health can be expected only until an average age of 55.6

“Even in a concrete jungle, an immune system depends on greenery. People who live the furthest from greenspace are most likely to die earlier”, Gustav said.

Gustav also discussed the importance of diet. He explained that our digestive system is designed for a simple diet of fruit, veg, and meat. However he did say that the idea of paleolithically-accordant diet was a myth – adding that a healthy diet “can be anything as long as it’s fresh”. The problem now, he explained, is the amount of additives in the increasing quantities of processed foods we consume. This is making us all unwell it seems, as our bodies do not have the ability to process these.

We are also designed to be upright and walking about, not sedentary – hence the increasing occurrence of obesity and cardiovascular problems, which are rare in non-urbanised societies. There are many diseases that only occur in modern societies and are a consequence of this lifestyle.

While developed, urbanised societies have largely eradicated mortality risks from things like neo-natal infections, malarial infections etc., new types of illnesses have emerged which are almost exclusive to the modern environment.

“The more urbanised you are the more likely you are to suffer from conditions such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, stomach cancer” – though it can also be argued that this is partly because we live much longer in modern societies and therefore reach an age where we are more prone to these.

Gustav outlined ways in which our urbanised societies can make changes in order to suit our physiologies – on a personal level through ‘lifestyle-embodied activities’, and on a wider-scale via ‘evolutionary accordant town planning’.

He explained that we need to make our streets more walkable and change the design of road and pavement layouts, showing us images of a radical design with cars travelling in the middle section, cycle-ways either side, and then wide pathways lined with trees and greenery.

Gustav explained that buildings should be designed in a way that is more conducive to healthy living and well-being. Attractively designed staircases should be central in entrance ways to buildings instead of lifts, encouraging us to be more active: “The more upright you are, the more the blood flies”.

He also talked about how the ‘hunting-psyche’ that we all still have within us can cause anti-social problems in a society where there may be no outlet for it. He cited schemes such a ‘midnight basketball’ which is run in areas where gangs are a problem – encouraging young people to play basketball as an outlet for this energy which might otherwise become destructive; and the Arsenal Kickz project that takes whole groups that may have been fighting against each other and organises football matches where they play against each other.  Such initiatives of course require access to green space.

It seems green environments, and ‘natural’ diets – bringing elements of the past and the countryside into our modern urban settings, and tweaking our cities to better suit the way are bodies are designed, may be the key to living a longer and healthier life.

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