Authors: Catriona Brady, Director of Strategy and Development & Sara Kawamura, Project Officer, Better Places for People, WorldGBC and Balsam Nehme, Head of Buildings Sustainability|LEED AP|Certified Energy Manager|Certified Green Professional at Dar Al-Handasah (Shair and Partners).
The buildings we occupy comprise the very fabric of our society. Health, equity and quality of life cannot be improved without tackling every aspect of the built environment that shapes and situates people’s lives. In our first blog, we presented the necessity for tackling the built environment in a holistic manner for climate change mitigation and resilience; this time, we focus on the social aspect of sustainability.
Infrastructure and urban ecosystems impact people’s quality of life. Almost 90% of people’s time is spent inside buildings, and trends of increasing urbanisation reported across the world are expected to reach close to 70% by 2050. However, the cities we currently live in are far from enhancing our health. An estimated 91% of the global population worldwide are breathing unsafe air, with the majority of air pollution experienced in urban environments. Although increasing proportions of the world’s population are soon to live in cities, the 75% of infrastructure required by 2050 still needs to be built. This offers great opportunities to tackle our existing health, wellbeing and community engagement challenges – and lead to the advancement of equity and justice in our communities.
As outlined in WorldGBC’s ‘Beyond Buildings’ publication, we know that buildings and infrastructure are independent in many ways. Health, air quality, equity and biophilia are definitively tackled at building level, with campaigns which include WorldGBC’s flagship Plant a Sensor initiative.
We won’t achieve meaningful outcomes if infrastructure doesn’t facilitate healthy, green and equitable social and economic infrastructure. That’s why WorldGBC is calling for a holistic approach to sustainability in the built environment, capturing both buildings and infrastructure – for both people and planet.
Health & Wellbeing for the WorldGBC global network
WorldGBC’s work on Health and Wellbeing is underpinned by the principles of our Health and Wellbeing Framework.
These principles are in keeping with many national health priorities, e.g. the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council identifies nine priority health issues, three of which are directly relevant to the infrastructure. The UK identifies public health priorities of air quality and mental health and the Centre for Disease Control in the USA identifies seven priorities including nutrition, physical activity and obesity (2).
The WorldGBC Health and Wellbeing Framework identifies important considerations for how community benefits can be encouraged through a sustainable built environment. From mobility options to water quality, green infrastructure and air quality, infrastructure plays a central role in supporting the health and wellbeing of communities. It also potentially supports perhaps an even greater role, in influencing positive health outcomes as they relate to life-style diseases within the indoor environment.
Some specific examples of the way that infrastructure supports health, wellbeing and social value include:
The benefits of public transit and active mobility solutions to obesity and cardiovascular health have been widely covered in the green building industry for decades. In order to substantially move the needle on the health outcomes associated with activity and transportation, the built environment must consider both the infrastructure networks that encourage active mobility and buildings with the facilities to support it. These include green spaces, community parks and gardens, spacious sidewalks, walkways and routes that divert away from roads and providing non-polluted green commuting routes, which would also help with cleaner air quality throughout the city.
Poor air quality is a persistent, global challenge for health in the built environment. It contributes to a wide range of respiratory diseases and conditions, as well as recent public health concerns such as obesity, reproductive issues, and neurological disorders (3). Air pollution can also exacerbate inequality- as poorer communities are known to suffer the impacts to a much greater extent. The vast majority relate to the combustion of fuel for heating, transportation and power generation (4). Buildings can manage indoor air quality through effective ventilation and filtration, but when we consider infrastructure alongside individual buildings, there are far greater opportunities to mitigate exposure to air pollution that include: the generation and use of renewable energy, electric vehicles, hydrogen systems and the replacement of diesel generation systems with batteries or hydrogen alternatives.
Urban ecosystems typically exist at a greater scale than buildings alone, and as cities consider how to support urban ecosystems the integration with city infrastructure will be important in providing meaningful initiatives for buildings to connect to. There are several opportunities for improving the ecology of cities, such as integrating water management infrastructure with green infrastructure (wetlands), integrating transportation corridors with wildlife corridors, and identifying where buildings can provide missing connectivity between biodiversity nodes in the urban environment (parks, waterfronts and waterways).
Connecting buildings to natural systems is essential for the mental health of building occupants, as urban living is associated with greater stress response in areas linked to emotional regulation, depression and anxiety in the brain, seen through a 21% increase in anxiety disorder, and 39% increase in mood disorders. Therefore, design and urban planning plays a crucial role in reducing stress and mental health risk, while supporting biophilic benefits and enhancing building value with strong connections to the outside.
The consideration of adaptation and resilience in the Beyond Buildings report has explored how buildings and infrastructure are interlinked when it comes to achieving a more resilient built environment, particularly to the inevitable future impacts of our changing climate. It is also clear that there is an important health, wellbeing and community benefit to resilience. For many communities, their capacity to absorb shocks is critically related to the infrastructure that supports them. From access to the utility networks that maintain a hospital operating during a hurricane, or the integrity of seawalls to a storm-surge that enhances resident evacuation time, the continued integrity of infrastructure is essential in supporting the resilience of communities within the built environment (5). It is not just about creating resilience to climate shocks, but also the mechanisms which reduce long-term stresses and consider efficient repair and reconstruction that rely on an integrated approach to buildings and infrastructure.
Find out more in the full report.