Buildings must promote healthy communities. Credit: Ben Richardson

+ As engineers we should remind clients of the social, health and community-supporting dimensions of the projects we help them realise.

As place-makers we have to contend with and resolve often competing priorities when designing a building. Even working with an enlightened approach it’s easy to miss the social dimension, the impact that the finished project will have on the way people interact inside and outside it. I believe we have a duty to factor in this all-important consideration if we’re to create buildings that genuinely lead to healthy cities. 

The equation could be simplified to this: buildings that promote social interaction and communication are ones that support healthy lives, creating areas where people thrive. A building might not itself speak but it still has a role to play in promoting conversation and socialisation in its neighbourhood.

One metric of a well-integrated society is the access everyone has to the shared features of a city, from its transport networks, to entertainment venues, parks and recreation facilities. But accessibility is often treated as a box ticking exercise, left to the end of a project. Wayfinding is also often considered late in the project cycle, leaving less time for a thoughtful, context-sensitive approach (much less anything innovative). But by moving both of these aspects of design to the beginning of the project process we could stimulate better health and communication outcomes, for a more diverse range of the population, creating mobility possibilities for all, including disabled people and other people who are often excluded. 

Hong Kong’s MTR underground train system dates back to the early twentieth century and was not easy to navigate for disabled people (including blind and partially sighted people). In the 1990s MTR decided to solve this problem in a joined-up way, adding tactile cues for blind and partially sighted people, and providing other inclusive features to the entire network. To take that thinking further, perhaps station navigation in future could be designed to work in a tactile way for all users, right from the outset. 

Disney World Resort is often cited for its pioneering approach to wayfinding, a vital feature for those navigating their way across the 40 square mile theme park. But such large-scale, top-down projects are rare. Our role as engineers on more typically scaled projects is to remind smaller clients to understand the communication and health implications their commission might involve.  

Beyond wayfinding there are other, innovative ways that we might design sensory interventions in order to improve public spaces and promote social interaction. Since the 1990s there have repeatedly been successful experiments piping classical music into public spaces to discourage anti-social behaviour. And in 2012, in a highly context-responsive design solution, a local energy company in northern Sweden installed light therapy panels in 26 bus shelters to offset seasonally affective disorder in passengers during the long months of darkness.  

These examples emphasise the value of considering how the built environment truly affects the lives of its users. I believe it’s time to embed this thinking in all we do.