Walkable Neighborhoods: Linkages Between Place, Health, and Happiness in Younger and Older Adults

I was walking down by the community hurling and football pitch this morning, listening to the birdsong and taking in the view of nature, when suddenly, out of the blue, a thought struck me: the world around us sure is amazing, but our preoccupation with the human world can sometimes lead us to neglect our environment.  This neglect can be reflected in simple behaviours, for example, failing to notice nature or aspects of our built environment when we’re out walking with our family. Or it might involve limited interaction and care for our environment, or recurrent failures to transform the design of our environment in positive ways. I’m often preoccupied with problems in the human world, and perhaps my feeling of being ‘struck’ by thoughts related to care and design of our environment while out walking is similar to a phenomena observed in many research studies – time spent in nature orients us positively to our environment. But where does a psychologist go from here?

Much like everyone else, psychologists cannot neglect the environment; and they certainly cannot neglect the effect of the environment of human happiness and health.  However, the history of our lifespan developmental science illustrates an unusual neglect here.  Importantly, when the fields of child development research and gerontology merged into the broader field known as lifespan developmental science, new ecological models of human aging emerged (Lawton & Nahemow, 1973). These models, now 60 years old, proposed that the physical (or built) environment may influence the wellbeing of people as they develop.  But, surprisingly, empirical analysis of these relationships was largely ignored for decades (Wahl et al., 2012).  Thanks to recent science, we now know more about these relationships, but we’re rather slow off the blocks and we need to do more work in this area.  If psychological science is to connect in meaningful ways with design sciences (Simon, 1969), we need to focus more attention on how the design of the environment influences human development, and how human development might influence the design of our environment. 

Consider the challenge of urban design. How should we design the built environment of our cities to support human happiness and health? And as we develop, how will our new urban designs impact on the health of our local environment?  Our recent study adds to a growing body of empirical work in the area.  

In one of our earlier studies, we examined how the city environment influences happiness. Our study, which focused on younger and older adults living in Berlin (Germany), London (United Kingdom), New York (NY), Paris (France), and Toronto (Canada), highlighted a distinction between the role of place and performance variables on the happiness of residents.  Place variables include residents’ ratings of how beautiful their city is, how proud they are to live there, and how easy it is to access shops, cultural and sports amenities, green spaces, and public transportation. Performance variables included residents’ ratings of the city’s basic services such as good schools, the quality of health care facilities, safety from crime (from good policing), and facilities serving the disadvantaged. We found that the happiness of younger city residents was strongly predicted by place variables, whereas performance variables were more important for the happiness of older adults.

Our most recent study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association focused on one city in particular (Dublin, Ireland) and one important design feature of the built environment: the walkability of neighbourhoods.  The measure of walkability we used in our study provides an indication of how easily residents can attain their daily needs by walking to key destinations from their home — local shops, grocery stores, pharmacies, cafes, parks, public transport stops, local schools. Building on our earlier research, we hypothesised that the walkability of neighborhoods may have both a performance aspect (i.e., walkability supports access to needed services such as doctors’ offices) and a place aspect (i.e., walkability supports access to cultural places, shopping, and cafes).  We predicted strong effects of walkability on happiness. 

We also expected the effects of walkability on happiness to be different for younger and older adults. Based on previous research, we hypothesised that the effects of walkability on the happiness of older adults would be mediated by variables related to autonomy and belonging, including feelings of trust which may be enhanced in walkable places.  Walkability may also support increased physical activity and better health in older adults, and thus we expected the effects of walkability on happiness to be mediated by health. On the other hand, we predicted that effects of walkability on happiness would be more direct for younger adults, as walkability is important for everyday work and social activities.  

Our study highlighted a number of interesting findings.  We found that living in a walkable neighborhood was directly and strongly linked to the happiness of people aged 36 to 45 and, to a lesser extent, those aged 18 to 35.  However, for adults 45 years and older, walkable neighborhoods mattered for happiness indirectly. In particular, older adults living in walkable neighborhoods felt more healthy and more trusting of others, and higher levels of health and trust in others in turn were related to higher happiness.

Evidence is mounting, walkable built environments influence social capital, health, and happiness. These findings suggest that planners, engineers, politicians, developers, financial institutions, and related professions should engage in dialogue on how best to build more walkable neighborhoods that support social connections, better health, and greater happiness for city residents.  Our design efforts here are naturally important beyond any preoccupation with human affairs.  More walkable built environments can also impact positively on the natural environment at local and global levels.  More walking and less driving will reduce levels of pollution in every local area where this occurs. Cumulatively, across many large cities around the world, reducing carbon emissions from commuter traffic will support a healthier global environment that allows greater potential for the many happy and healthy footprints of future generations walking into the future.

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