Our environment has a significant influence on physical and mental well-being – often without us realising it, or recognising the causes. The building and property industry thus bears an important responsibility when it comes to planning and designing urban spaces – indoors and outdoors. At the DGNB Annual Congress, Professor Eckart von Hirschhausen (founder of the Healthy Planet – Healthy People Foundation, or GEGM), Professor Mazda Adli (Fliedner Hospital, Berlin) and Rudi Scheuermann (Arup) explained how our well-being is impaired by external influences of city life. They also considered ways to make city life more enjoyable.
BLOG SERIES ON THE DGNB ANNUAL CONGRESS 2023 (PART 4)
The second digital annual congress of the DGNB took place on 14 and 15 February. The event featured a variety of open discussions, providing plenty of ideas and inspiration on different aspects of sustainable building. This series of blog posts offers a look back at the event with a summary of key insights. In our next article, we turn the spotlight on the possibilities offered to ongoing development projects by a climate protection ‘reset’.
In his speech on Healthy Planet – Healthy People, Professor Eckart von Hirschhausen (a doctor, science journalist and founder of the GEGM Healthy Planet – Healthy People Foundation) provided a thought-provoking introduction to this topic.
A healthy planet is an important basis of human health
A key takeout of Hirschhausen’s speech was that natural resources are a crucial aspect of human health and that the only source of these resources is a healthy planet. “We need air to breathe. We need water to drink. We need plants and vegetables that can be eaten. We need tolerable temperatures. And we need togetherness – we’re social animals. Right now, all of this is in jeopardy,” exclaimed Hirschhausen.
Of the top ten threats to global health, air pollution and climate change rank equal first, he said. Both of these factors are strongly influenced by the building industry. We need new ideas – now.
Constant high temperatures make us sick
Hirschhausen also re-emphasised that we must understand that you can’t throw things away on this planet; things don’t simply disappear. The same applies to other matters, such as heat. All we do with air conditioning systems is move heat somewhere else, and a running air conditioning unit actually generates more heat. This casts a heat and haze dome over cities; and especially in cities, high temperatures are a risk to human health. With different building methods and materials, this would be preventable, he continued. It’s no longer uncommon to see city temperatures exceed those of the surrounding countryside by up to ten degrees Celsius.
So how do buildings react to high temperatures? What are the logical implications of areas being covered in concrete, sealed under asphalt, or buildings being erected close together? Our cities are evolving into so-called heat islands. These are caused by the materials we use in urban structures, such as concrete, steel and glass. As well as heating up, these materials store heat and release it later into their surroundings. Sealed surfaces prevent the soil from absorbing water that would otherwise evaporate and help reduce air temperatures. Tightly packed buildings leave little opportunity for air to circulate. The heat stays in the city.
According to von Hirschhausen, this has consequences for us as human beings: we sleep badly at temperatures above 20°C, we’re less productive at work and our health suffers. The elderly, children and people with medical conditions are particularly badly affected by heat.
“We’re staring the challenge of the century in the face and we don’t have another century to play with.”
The solutions and measures that need to be taken are obvious, said von Hirschhausen: green building exteriors, more vegetation in inner city areas, more shade from trees, light-coloured building surfaces, sealed surfaces opened up again to store rainwater rather than heat, areas designated and maintained as green belt land that can’t be built on.
“We need to form alliances that break with convention to genuinely emphasise how urgent this is, so we can focus the solutions we do have on fostering positivity and a desire to enjoy the future again,” says von Hirschhausen, appealing for people to pull together in mitigating climate change.
Potential climate adaptation strategies, the concept of sponge cities, and ways to prevent heat islands forming were also the topics of other discussions at the annual congress. To read more about these issues, go here.
The impact of the built environment on our mental well-being
Being surrounded by more vegetation influences a number of things, including our mental well-being, explained Professor Mazda Adli (psychiatrist and stress researcher at Fliedner Hospital, Berlin) and Rudi Scheuermann (Director and Arup Fellow).
Work carried out by Adli provides insights into the impact of the built environment on mental health. He has been capturing the accounts and experiences of his patients at the Fliedner Clinic as part of his research for Charité university hospital in Berlin. “The things around us often look the same as the things inside us. The environment we build around ourselves leaves its mark – in psychological terms.” Likewise, nature, our social environments and things happening around us are a crucial element of our emotional well-being, he said. The fact that towns and cities still look the way they do is also due to the fact that many things slip below our radars of consciousness.
So, what should the ideal house, town or city be like to fuel positive emotions and lower stress levels? According to Adli, a good city is one that counteracts the kind of social stress that is quite normal in cities. The design of the city should also offer ways to counteract stress.
Green – humanity’s ‘happy colour’
One major factor that influences our mental well-being in towns and cities, said Adli, is greening – or green spaces in general. Quoting from the findings of one of his studies, which was conducted with the Federal Environmental Agency, Adli said, “The higher the percentage of green space surrounding your home, the more active the areas of your brain that deal with stress.” This is not something people notice on a conscious level.
Rudi Scheuermann was in charge of façade planning and building envelope design at Arup for 15 years. During this time, he was involved in greening building envelopes and looking at the influence of green spaces on people. He described how apart from more general, measurable effects such as cleaner air and fewer heat islands, greening urban areas also improves sound quality: “Plants and spaces with plant life growing on them help change the acoustics of cities for the better.” Environmental noise pollution is muted significantly, he said.
Get away from stress – but where?
Another form of stress that affects our mental well-being – especially in towns and cities – is social stress, says Adli. This is not only caused by inhabiting densely populated areas (density stress), but also by having limited social contacts due to the anonymity of cities (isolation stress). This can also be dealt with by good urban design, he said.
Scheuermann pointed to so-called breakout areas – small spaces put aside for recreational activities – as one such solution. It’s important that we’re able to decide for ourselves whether we want to expose ourselves to urban stress, or whether we’d rather observe the hustle and bustle from a more tranquil perspective. Just knowing that you have a choice is fundamental to our well-being and stress levels.
In summary, this means we need appealing places where we can not only switch off, but also meet and interact with others in order to combat potentially harmful social stress. To enjoy a healthy urban environment, we need spaces indoors and out with plenty of plantlife and green areas.
Do you live in Berlin? Or are you spending time there? You’re welcome to help us put together an Emotion Map of the German capital as part of citizen involvement research called Your Emotional City. For more information go to: www.futurium.de/de/deine-emotionale-stadt
More posts for the blog series:
- The DGNB building material passport – documentation for more closed-loop building
- Protecting biodiversity – from the well intentioned to the well done
- Living with climate change – are we living the right way in our cities?
Title picture: © Silviu on the street on Pixabay; edited by Tamira Bethke