For as long as us humans have existed, we’ve had a strong connection to our surrounding environment. From the earliest days of humanity – when we were dependent on and at the mercy of nature – we either adapted to nature’s conditions, moved away from them or died.

As humans have advanced, an even more active relationship with our surroundings has formed. The establishment of agriculture helped human civilizations shift from being largely reactive, to being proactive in shaping day-to-day environments. This shift resulted in the beginning of ‘built environments’ and of man-made features that we surround ourselves by today.

Let’s break down what humans need to survive – access to food, clean water, air and shelter. By knowing what’s necessary for survival, we can create environments that cater to these needs. What’s less obvious, however, is what humans need for their wellbeing, since unlike survival, how we define wellbeing isn’t quite so black-and-white.  

One’s wellbeing varies by geography, since the physical, economic and cultural specificities of a place influence what inhabitants consider a high quality of life. Additionally, the definition of wellbeing will differ over time, as norms and preferences shift.

During the middle of the 20th century in America, the norm for most adults was to get married, find a job and settle down. For that generation – many of whom came from poor immigrant families and grew up in tight, non-private living quarters – the dream was to move from the cramped and dirty city and into a big home with a fence (the embodiment of privacy) and a car (the embodiment of freedom).  

More cars on the road also means more traffic accidents (a leading cause of death globally), with studies finding up to a 22 per cent greater risk of car-related accidents in suburbs and rural areas. 

Preferences at the time meant that moving to the suburbs was considered a positive step towards greater wellbeing. Neighborhoods were clean and safe for children, life was slower-paced and less stressful, and ownership of big houses and cars instilled a sense of wealth and pride. However, in the last few decades this narrative has shifted, with more people finding the features that were once thought to improve quality of life in the suburbs, to actually be detracting from it.

The suburbs, where millions of families flocked, have now become overly car-dependent – this reliance on cars as the dominant mode of transportation, having a negative impact on wellbeing. Crippling traffic sucks up nearly 50 hours of the average American’s life every year (and twice that for Londoners) and cars continue to spew out dirty pollutants, harmful for the driver as well as the environment. More cars on the road also means more traffic accidents (a leading cause of death globally), with studies finding up to a 22 per cent greater risk of car-related accidents in suburbs and rural areas. 

So, if we are no longer happy with the suburban, car-dependent environments we’ve built for ourselves,  what can we do to create new environments that cater to our wellbeing? Well, given society’s changing preferences and circumstances, all signs point away from the suburban lifestyle and instead toward one that is found in more dense urban environments, or cities.

There are many reasons why cities, when built correctly, are better for our wellbeing. They don’t impose car dependency, but instead, offer mobility options including public transit systems and non-motorized forms of transportation, like walking and biking. 

A more diversified transportation system, that’s less reliant on cars, dramatically improves neighborhood safety by reducing the risk of traffic accidents. It likewise improves community health by reducing smog and other pollutants that enter the air we breathe.

Another positive feature of a well designed city is the location of goods and services near residential areas – a concept known as ‘mixed-use development’. Co-locating homes with schools, shops and office spaces not only encourages people to get out of their car and onto their bikes, but it also reduces travel time between activities, in turn decreasing the stress of running daily errands and giving people back the precious hours they once lost due to long car commutes or rush-hour traffic.  

Cities that have adequate public space encourage community interaction and engagement, something that society has lost by confining itself to single-lot homes and personal vehicles. Providing green space in cities is also known to reduce mortality rates and improve mental health in women.

Beyond survivability, it is important that we consider what type of ‘built environments’ will make life worth living in the first place, whether that be creating places that prioritize interaction over privacy, walking and biking over driving, and experiences over material possessions. 

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