Uni-Health is a university exchange program, a collaboration between Universidad Politecnica de Madrid and Newcastle University, focusing on the positive contribution urban design has to the health of an urban population by way of improving the physical and social spaces within the city. A series of guest speakers describing the city from the perspective of an aging population framed a context of missed potential and a need to change the city into a healthy self-sustaining system.
A future city with a symbiotic relationship between the health of its population and the health of its habitat, achieved partly by introducing green accessible space, parks and running community led garden ‘greening’ projects could be the catalyst for a new way of urban living.
Beginning with a study trip to Madrid, an urban environment where the opportunity for creating space with a comfortable climate was not being exploited, we were introduced to the challenges with the cities exaggerated summer heat, limited water supply and lack of integrated outdoor shade. A lack of meeting places and pedestrianised routes between the residential blocks create a sense of isolation. These challenges and the potential for a new more inclusive streetscape could be seen in the context of an aging population. How could ‘greening’ the city, controlling the temperature within the public space and incorporating these dispersed gathering points into district wide pedestrian schemes improve health, wellbeing and social contact for retirees?
Once back in Newcastle, the Charrette week was continuing the discussion with members of Voice, a community of retirees from a diverse background, providing incite, industry and career experience to students in order to broaden the discussion. As a group of students, academics, with Voice we were invited to hear a varied group of speakers from diverse projects, with different challenges, outcomes and at opposing scales. There was a heavy focus on ‘greening’, community gardening, place making and community garden schemes, which used a natural connection with our environment, the city’s ecology, or lack off, as an point of engagement.
The basic human need to be within a community and to be within a ‘natural’ living mechanism was highlighted by several schemes. It was clear that our universal need to have connection to soil, to growth, to the seasons could act as a point of engagement to integrate people from diverse background into this corner of the world and propagate a feeling of belonging or provide a sense of investment in place. We had the opportunity to hear from The Comfrey Project, who bring migrants together within a garden, in order to build a social place with establishes a community by way of building and maintain a garden. Greening Wingrove in a similar vein aims to improve the city streetscape by maintaining a neighbourhood wide tidy and greening project, by doing so creating a safe, beautiful place and encouraging a community to claim their streets back. Another example was the Whitley Bay Railway Station garden which highlighted the challenges and drive needed to make a success of a community led project.
Our introduction to the themes of an ‘aging city’ and the challenges of that, the need for ‘greening’ and the concept of a citywide ecologically diverse landscape was highlighted very clearly in Madrid as well as the projects presented over the week. ARUP showcased the need to integrate a network of green to sustain the system and highlight the ‘value’, economic and social, brought to a cityscape which has been ‘greened’. The ambitions of Uni-Health and its diverse applications, the use of ‘greening’ to achieve different outcomes, from mental wellbeing to changing urban climatic conditions and building for an aging population was inspiring. Many of the pitfalls of a modern city highlighted, many taken for granted in a modern urban environment have ,Uni-health hopes, the potential to be overcome, in order to improve the wellbeing of an urban population, something which is fundamental within a world with an ever increasing urbanised people.
The question is therefore posed, what is the potential for urban public space as a social integrator, space that can improve the health of a city and modulate the urban climate, the heat island and the mental wellbeing of a population which often remains entombed within its cityscape?
The key point of the Uni-Health program of course is that there are solutions, there is potential and the future is the answer. There is optimism and there are schemes that are happening. The benefits, although localised, are being felt. A point is being proven. By combining these ideas and showcasing them on a platform, the intention is to inspire and develop, to dream and hope for better, to allow us all to contribute to the next century of development, of urbanisation and the ever improving built environment. That is something to be commended in 2019.