Deborah Orr’s lovely article in the Guardian this week ‘Value your health: head for the inner city, and swerve the ‘burbs’ got me thinking. Her premise is that people who live in the Inner City are healthier than people, like me in Ealing, who live in the ‘burbs’. The reason? Because people in the Inner Cities walk more.
The ‘burbs’ of Ealing have wonderful opportunities for walking and active transport so I feel that the ‘burbs’ can be just as healthy, and certainly significantly more active than people who live in the countryside and rely on their car as the only form of transport.
Beyond the obvious and frequently stated advantages of active modes of transport (I’m grouping walking and cycling here) that could address a number of our nation’s ills in a stroke:
Personal benefits: Walking and cycling reduces obesity, decreases high blood pressure, and can often help with depression.
Physical benefits: Walking and cycling substantially decreases air pollution (BBC).
Business benefits: Local shops thrive as people walk and cycle to them, rather than drive to supermarkets.
There’s also compelling evidence that there are substantial social benefits to active transport in the ‘burbs’ too. The neighbours we all know in our community are the ones getting about by foot, the ones on their bikes, the ones who stop for a chat whilst walking their dogs. These are the people who are the heartbeat of their communities, encouraging social bonding, acting as the glue in our country. In fact when we examine the NHS’s ‘Five Steps to mental wellbeing’ we see that “To Connect” is number one.
It is impossible to connect with your neighbours in the ‘burbs’ if you walk out of your house straight into your car (that you obsessively) park directly outside your house. There’s no opportunity for your paths to cross with others, no casual serendipitous encounters. Not only is this having a detrimental effect on ourselves, but also on our society as a whole.
I believe that millions of people missing out on these community micro-interactions means we are less likely to tolerate our neighbours and this is responsible for the increase in tension and hate across the country and online.
This is a big part of Yuval Harari’s book “Sapiens”, where Yuval speculates that without the ability for humans to ‘gossip’ and interact frequently in their communities we wouldn’t have been as successful at colonising the world as we have been.
These vital micro (or as long as you like!) interactions that would have previously occurred as we walked out of homes to go to the local football game, left our houses dragging our kids on foot to the local primary school, or as we wandered down the road to pick up some food from the local shop: They’ve all been lost.
The good news is, they’re actually still there. Just a small change in behaviour has meant I rarely spend a day without bumping into one of my friends or acquaintances from my social network by accident – making me really feel part of a network – connected in the real world.
So why not give it a go next time you go to pick up your car keys or maybe try a change in behaviour once a week and see how different it makes you feel – I guarantee it will make you feel healthier, happier, more connected and have better interactions with your friends and family.
Don’t be a community ghost.