Urban design has an important part to play in amplifying or minimising our wellbeing. How our homes, streets, neighbourhoods and public buildings look, and how they are arranged, matters.
So says Dr Paul Keedwell, author and psychologist. A Londoner with a passion for property, cities and how we live in them, he has written widely on many aspects of psychology and mental health, and his more artistic side is drawn to architecture and design.
He has studied the history of modern architecture, and has spent the past 15 years in London renovating and restoring his own homes. So he is well-qualified to understand the challenges of city living. Keedwell says: “Cities can be stimulating, creative, inspiring places. But cities are also stressful, and can be alienating. Rates of anxiety and depression are higher in our inner cities that they are in the countryside.”
Fifty-four per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. In his latest book, Headspace: The Psychology of City Living, Keedwell looks at the impact of landscaping on public spaces and finds the best mimic nature, with trees, pools and plenty of nooks and crannies where children can play.
ASK PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT
“Developers often build life-sapping buildings, dictated by the interests of commerce,” he says. “Government buildings are often dictated by cost- cutting. Architects and town planners like to think that they know people, and therefore know what will make them happy, but they have made a lot of mistakes, and they are still making them.”
Keedwell is a great believer in consultation. Consulting communities about what they want is crucial, he says, along with design that is “secure, accessible and promotes footfall” so that public spaces don’t become crime-ridden and isolated.
“Cities need high-density housing, but well-designed green space where people have a sense of ownership makes all the difference.” A fan of sky gardens, terraces and balconies, he says studies show that interacting with nature through gardening or birdwatching boosts immunity levels: “If you’re stuck in a small flat, having access to green space where you hear birdsong, not noisy buses, reduces anxiety and depression.”
BIRDS AND THE BEES IN GIPSY HILL
South of the river there’s plenty of green space where you can get back to nature. New scheme The Triangle has balconies with “living walls” — gardens aren’t always needed for butterflies and bees, says designer Sylvia Callan, who planted the walls with ferns and grasses.
The development has a communal garden but is near 116 acres of nature reserve at South Norwood Country Park, where wildfowl are often spotted on the lake and emperor dragonflies are seen in summer on Dragonfly Pond. Wildlife photographer Dan Keel runs walks and talks, bookable at ilikebird.uk. “It’s better than the Scottish Highlands where you wait for ages to see something rare,” says Keel.
“In summer you get swifts, swallows and house martins which attract peregrines and hobbies who have a feeding frenzy. They’ve been known to grab the occasional bat.” Two-bedroom flats at The Triangle start from £565,000 plus £1,500 service charge and £350 annual ground rent. Call estate agent Pedder on 020 7738 6839.
Bird-watching is growing in popularity and TV shows such as Countryfile fuel the interest says David Lindo, “the Urban Birder”, a regular on BBC’s Springwatch. “Just look up. Birds are everywhere, even in the densest parts of the city,” says Lindo, who wants developers to do more to help nature. “It doesn’t take much to install holes for swifts, house martins and bats to nest, all are dwindling in London.”
City beekeeping is also on the rise and residents at Goodman’s Fields in Aldgate, E1 enjoy “meet the beekeeper” sessions at four hives housing 100,000 bees on a sixth-floor rooftop. Dale Gibson of Bermondsey Bees, artisan makers of honey and beeswax products, credits Berkeley Homes for “not just plonking but planting”, ensuring an ample food supply for the bees in two acres of public space containing woodland areas, water features and a wildflower rooftop garden.
“Boring sedum roofs aren’t enough,” says Gibson, adding that Londoners are increasingly aware of bees’ contribution to biodiversity and sustainability. The penultimate phase of Goodman’s Fields, Neroli House has 123 flats, with studios from £765,000, ready in 2019. Service charges start at £5 a square foot and annual ground rent is £550. Call 020 3217 1000.
Little nature lovers went pond-dipping at Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park’s recent Wild Day Out. The park is part of Greenwich Millennium Village’s four acres of freshwater wetlands, two wildlife event lakes, and meadow grasslands with boardwalks and bird hides. One-bedroom flats at the village’s latest phase, Iverna Quay, start from £399,995 with £2.73 per square foot service charge and £300 annual ground rent. Call 020 8305 2712.
GREENING UP KING'S CROSS
Keedwell is encouraged by the growing awareness of the importance of garden squares and courtyards with, in some cases, half of the project given over to open areas in inner-city regeneration. King’s Cross has become a blueprint for thoughtful regeneration in densely populated areas.
It has a two-acre nature reserve. Run by the London Wildlife Trust, the former coalyard at Camley Street is now a natural park with birds, butterflies and bats plus a wide variety of plants, thanks to varied habitats such as wetlands, woodland and meadow. The neighbourhood is also home to the Skip Garden — a movable green space now in its third location, housing a chicken coop — and wetland twilight gardening space for events and learning.
Two thousand new homes are planned for King’s Cross with 25 acres of public space. Seasonal planting and water are “key to the design”, says developer Argent. More than 400 species have been planted so far, as gardener Dan Pearson wants to “enhance and increase the abundance of urban wildlife” along the neighbourhood’s canal banks and two acres of natural parkland. Swans are a common sight but black redstarts, of which the UK has fewer than 100 breeding pairs, were recently spotted.
Three-bedroom flats with balcony at The Plimsoll Building, around a communal garden in King’s Cross, start from £1.8 million with monthly service charge of £7.46 per square foot and annual ground rent of £750. Call 020 3691 3969.
PADDINGTON'S FLOATING PARK
London’s first floating pocket park recently opened at Merchant Square in Paddington, where European Land’s Andrew Scrivener hopes it will be an oasis for West End workers and residents. Visitors can walk above the Grand Union Canal via decked platforms planted with wind-tolerant grasses and nectar-rich flowers. A wildlife island has native waterside plants to encourage birds and waterfowl to feed and nest.
European Land’s next residential building will be at 55-65 North Wharf Road, opposite the canal entrance to Paddington station. The 95-unit scheme launches this autumn. Call 020 7298 0800 for information.
Homes at Paddington Gardens are set over more than an acre of green in the heart of the Paddington Basin in W2, planted with 220 native birch trees to provide an urban haven for birds, butterflies and wildlife. Roof gardens are designed to let residents enjoy high-rise green living. Residents will also be given planters, complete with integral irrigation system, and will be encouraged to cultivate native floral species.
A total of 271 flats and 64 affordable homes by Meritas Real Estate, made up of one- to four-bedroom apartments and penthouses, will be set within four towers that will also offer commercial space and a primary school. Expected to be ready by the end of next year, one-bedroom flats start at £825,000 plus estimated monthly service charge of £5 per square foot and annual ground rent of £500. Call CBRE on 020 7182 3599 or Strutt & Parker on 020 7318 4677.
Headspace: The Psychology of City Living by Paul Keedwell (Aurum Press, £18.99)