Urban form shapes not only the physical elements of our lives that impact our health in terms of noise, pollution, exercise, workplaces, housing, healthcare and mobility. It also shapes the social and spiritual aspects of our well being such as our sense of home in our neighbourhoods, our level of stress, spiritual refuge, and our opportunities to connect to each other and other living things.

Healing Cities Model

Gaining a better understanding of what shapes the way people live and interact, and ultimately form city spaces, is central to healing cities. Recognizing that not all behaviours are environmentally determined, there is room to explore the positive aspects of how city spaces shape behavior patterns and the personal experiences. Changes in the city fabric are intimately connected to personal values; prioritizing healthy habits and interactions within communities can help planners to better understand how to foster awareness that can lead to healthy, more sustainable behaviour patterns and thus lead to broader city shifts in form and interaction.

Components of a Healing City

Through Healing Cities, we are reconnecting the variables that shape cities by understanding synergies that exist. Radiating out from the central healthy city are various components (Figure 4): first, the dimension of physical health (multi-modal transportation, physical experience, pollution-free, etc); second, the dimension of a healthy mind (balance, healthy relationship with oneself, free from dis-ease, etc.); and finally, the dimension of spiritual health (whole beings, presence, silence, nature, etc). Together these elements form the healthy mind, body, spirit interactions that comprise the city experience.
When we consider the social side of a city, we can add a 4th dimension – that of social relationships.   In summary then, when addressing issues of a healing city, we need to look at its impacts on us:

  1. Physically
  2. Mentally / Emotionally
  3. Socially
  4. Spiritually

Conceptualizing a Spiritual Urbanism

While we as a society understand fairly well how to deal with the lower elements of Maslow’s hierarchy in city planning (aka – physical health), one of the most interesting areas of inquiry is to consider the upper levels of the hierarchy – namely a sense of spiritual wellbeing.

While individuals search for meaning in life, how does the form of cities influence this journey? How could the city enhance the individual and collective health of its inhabitants? Acknowledging the spiritual dimensions of urbanism opens up the discussion about the concept of the sacred within planning, although it risks the impulse to condense the diversity of difference into one worldview. Thus, how is it possible to frame an experience of spiritual place and interactions through diversity? Furthermore, how might healing environments that facilitate health be created and open up people and spaces to the possibility of containing spiritual experiences?

The Healing Cities Background

Healing is much more than curing physical ailments, it is a multidimensional process that integrates physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, and social components of a person’s being such that each component affects the other (Gesler, 2003; Svihus, 1979). This approach recognizes that people don’t live as isolated islands, but are intimately connected to their surroundings and influenced profoundly by a range of factors. For example, studies have found that individuals exposed to natural, garden-like settings can experience reductions in stress, improved immune functioning, better pain control management and improved physical and emotional wellbeing (Bressi, 2001).

Understanding the influence of living environments on health responds to the call for reconnecting planning and public health practice (Northridge, Scalar, Biswas, 2003; Barton, Tsourou, 2000; Johnson and Hill, 2002; Frank and Kavage, 2008). In recent years, the impact of the built environment on physical and mental health has received growing attention, with both public health and planning agencies coming together to call for more walkable, livable and healthy communities (Plante, 2008; Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, 2007; SmartGrowth BC, 2006).

When it was discovered that even moderate levels of activity could substantially decrease the chances of these lifestyle diseases, the public health field began to recognize the relevance of urban planning, transportation, engineering and architecture in supporting healthy citizens (Smart Growth BC, 2006). In terms of mental health, participation in recreation and regular physical activity has been linked to improved self-esteem, reduced depressive symptoms, decreased stress and anxiety, improved self-acceptance, changes in anti-social behavior and enhanced psychological well-being (Torjman, 2004).

There is a substantial body of literature on how community design, institutional design, and design of the physical built environment impacts people with cognitive and mental health impairments such as children and the elderly and people with a range of mental health issues. Additionally, healthcare providers, architects, landscape designers, and hospital administrators have come to believe that the hospital environment can affect the mood, stress level, and perceived overall health of patients and families (Ulrich,1991). With the renewed focus on the healing potential of the hospital built environment, i.e., the color, light, sound, texture, and other structural- design aspects of the facility, empirical documentation of the restorative aspects of the built environment on the healing process is strongly advocated (Ulrich, 1991). Thus, it follows that built space impacts us all, both in healing as well as maintaining health.

Building on the strong foundation of work related to health and the built environment, this initiative focuses on the healing and spiritual elements of place that are inherent in highly sustainable and livable communities. Healing Cities joins the call to action to re-evaluate planning practice and to expand the scope of the mandate to create sustainable cities designed to support whole health and well-being for its citizens.



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Gibson, Grant, Chalfont, Garuth Eliot, Clarke, Pamela D., Torrington, Judith M. and Sixsmith, Andrew J.(2007) ‘Housing and Connection to Nature for People with Dementia’, Journal of Housing For the Elderly, 21: 1, 55 — 72

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Ulrich, R. S. (1991). Effects of interior design on wellness: Theory and recent scientific research. Journal of Health Care Interior Design, 3, 97-109.

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