Blue health - why water is so important in our cities

The notion that a dose of nature is good for our health is not new or novel, writes environmental psychologist, Jenny Roe. There is now a wealth of evidence to show that access to nature in our cities provides multiple benefits, from improving life longevity to alleviating depression.

Writing in Biophilic Cities Journal, April 2018 Roe says researchers have, in recent years, begun pursuing the evidence in relation to “blue health” – the positive health benefits of access to our coasts, rivers and canals. By blue Roe means any environment that fosters interactions with water: from walking along a canal towpath, interacting with the sparkle and flow of a city water fountain, or even through virtual reality in a hospital or care home.

 Water water everywhere - in Sheffield UK. Photo credit: Jenny Roe

Water water everywhere - in Sheffield UK. Photo credit: Jenny Roe

Roe maintains we are more likely to be physically active if we live near inland water or the coast. Blue features – such as fountains – simply make walking about a city a happier and more enjoyable experience.

Sheffield, in the UK, is one city where urban designers and engineers have worked to integrate blue features into the urban fabric. The water theme is announced at the city’s major arrival point, the train station, which houses a linear water feature screening the sound of the adjacent traffic, making the arrival experience welcoming and memorable.

There are a handful of studies showing that living near inland water increases one’s likelihood to walk or run. The most powerful evidence, however, comes from research in coastal settings. Studies from the UK and New Zealand have found a link between living near the coast and a lower Body Mass Index in children, and adolescents and adults. Several studies from Croatia have observed reduced hypertension among adult coronary heart disease patients in hospitals located in coastal areas as well as a higher prevalence of cardiovascular health problems among those living inland compared to those living near coasts, particularly in women.

 The delight and curiosity of interacting with water in Sheffield, a city with an integrated urban water plan.  Photo credit: Jenny Roe. 

The delight and curiosity of interacting with water in Sheffield, a city with an integrated urban water plan.  Photo credit: Jenny Roe. 

Access to blue space can reduce our stress levels and improve our psychological well-being. A study carried out by Roe’s team in West Palm Beach, Florida, has shown how a short walk along a downtown waterfront can improve perceived and physiological stress as measured by heart rate variability and self-reports. Furthermore, a tactical urban intervention along the waterfront significantly improved self-reported well-being, by directly engaging participants with the blue environment (via historical imagery of the sea) and improving the waterfront’s comfort level by offering shade and seating. In this unique experiment, Roe says the team showed  how encouraging fascination in the blue environment can further enhance its effect on visitors’ well-being. Further evidence is provided by a handful of studies showing the effects – mostly of coastal settings – on psychological well-being. Individuals report being happier in marine and coastal areas, as well as freshwater, wetlands and floodplains, compared with urban or rural settings. Living nearer coastal areas has been shown to bring multiple benefits: better mental well-being; improved life satisfaction; and reduced psychological distress in adults and adolescents, simply from increased views of blue space (ocean and freshwater). The benefits of blue space are sustained across the life course: for children, adolescents and seniors. Older adults, in particular, have distinctly therapeutic relationships with blue space, providing opportunities to connect with the past as well as assisting with independent living in the present.

 The University of Sheffield.  Photo credit: Jan Woudstra.

The University of Sheffield.  Photo credit: Jan Woudstra.

Roe says we don’t have a full understanding of the impact of blue environments on our health and well-being but what we do know suggests great potential for blue space as a health resource. The fountains and waterways in our cities are not only practical and aesthetically pleasing, but are a human necessity that sustains our health and wellbeing. If blue space is to be employed as a really useful health tool, it needs to offer a quality environment that is accessible and safe for all. As Sheffield demonstrates, managing urban water systems with an integrated and sustainable urban water planning system, makes for a joyful and health promoting place that leaves a long-lasting sense of wonder.

*Jenny Roe is Director of the Center for Design + Health, in the School of Architecture, University of Virginia and is an environmental psychologist who explores restorative environments, natural or built.

The original version of this story - with references to all the studies mentioned above - can be found in the Biophilic Cities Journal, April 2018.