In today's busy world, people often take for granted the influence that the physical environment has on their health and well-being. Navigating through a dense urban sprawl can be tiring, as congested streets cause people to spend hours spinning their wheels every day. It is important to consider how this affects both our stress levels and our overall happiness. Living in a walkable neighborhood provides an opportunity to reap the benefits of improved mental health, and studies suggest it could be critical for older adults in particular.
For many decades, urban planners have noted the positive effects of increased walkability on public safety and accessibility. With this in mind, a focus on designing neighborhoods with safety in mind has become increasingly popular in cities across the globe. The impact of these practices goes even deeper, however, connecting physical and mental well-being to environmental factors.
The concept of "place" is necessary to understand the full effect of this relationship. Place is the sum of different components, such as design, connectivity, and services, which come together to form a unique experience. In other words, it is a fundamental element of the built environment – like homes, roads, and parks – which affects one's lifestyle and subsequently, one's happiness.
Ecological models of human aging offer an important lens to view the role of neighborhood walkability in promoting happiness and well-being at any age. Although these models put a strong emphasis on older adults, the effects of walkability extend to all age groups. Promoting healthy and safe streets is beneficial to all members of a community regardless of their age, gender, or social status.
When looking at research that examines the effect of neighborhood walkability on happiness, it is important to reflect on the difference between younger and older populations. Studies have shown that neighborhoods that are considered "walkable" can provide physical and cognitive benefits for older adults, such as improved memory, higher physical activity, and increased social interactions. These benefits were found to lead to improved happiness in older adults.
In contrast, research indicates that walkability enhances mental well-being among younger adults in a more indirect manner. Walkable neighborhoods encourage overall activity and connectivity; by increasing the number of easily accessible destinations, they create a sense of belonging and a new wave of excitement. In other words, having a place to go and a safe route to get there stimulates motivation and social connectedness, creating an embrace of life and increasing positivity.
It is safe to assume that when citizens of all ages have physical and social access to places and services within their own neighborhood, their sense of belonging and connection to their surrounding environment increases, consequently leading to greater happiness. Moreover, walking allows us to interact with and observe nature, helping to reduce stress and tension. This makes living in walkable neighborhoods even more valuable, as it gives us another tool to reap the benefits of nature's healing powers.
This idea suggests that there is much more to the link between environment and happiness than previously thought. The physical features of our neighborhood have the power to affect our mental state and in turn, our quality of life. The idea that our external environment has a direct influence on our internal wellbeing may be more empowering than we initially consider.
Living in a walkable neighborhood not only connects us to our surroundings, but also connects us to ourselves. With the right perspective, navigating our community can be an opportunity to explore and discover the vast potential for positive outcomes that lies within our living space. The implications for community development and aged care are clear; to live happier, healthier lives, we must strive for walkable, livable spaces.