Living Intentionally

New urbanism means living more sustainably within caring communities
As people around the world seek more sustainable living choices, a spirit of "new urbanism" is taking hold, says Chandrika Gibson

The built environment impacts on all of our senses, affects our emotions, alters our levels of physical activity and enhances or detracts from community life.Homes, towns, cities, the private and public places we inhabit, work and play in, contribute to human wellbeing.

According to Iain Butterworth's 2000 report on Community Psychology, we "read" meanings generated by buildings and spaces. Whether we know the language of the built environment or not, we are still influenced by it in a variety of ways. This concept explains the links architecture, politics, environmental health and town planning have with holistic health.

Unlike the gated communities of the US where homes are physically segregated based on people's wealth, Australian suburbs have less obvious divisions. Some areas are distinctly diverse, offering a range of housing styles. Sadly, many of the best examples of mixed housing eventually give way to gentrification. It's ironic that the very cosmopolitan nature of a suburb makes it desirable and that forces the prices up until it becomes more mono-cultural. It takes excellent planning, councils and local government involvement but, most importantly, motivated residents to make a healthy community.

Whether you move into an established home in an older area or start from scratch to build your home, chances are you hope to enjoy a long and healthy life there. So what should you look for in the built environment to enhance your wellbeing? And what can you do to increase wellness inside and around your house? How can you make your house a healing home for all who live and visit there?

If you have the opportunity to design your own home, or if you are renovating an older place, you are more than likely thinking about solar passive design principles. Where possible, the orientation of the house should be north south rather than east west, but most properties can be adapted by placing windows and breezeways appropriate to the climate.

In winter, when the sun is lower in the sky and temperatures are lower, it makes sense to invite the light and warmth inside by facing windows to the north. In summer, the sun travels more or less directly overhead so those northern windows won't be hit directly. You can increase the effectiveness by shading the windows with deciduous plants (they lose their foliage in winter so they're perfect to create summer shade only) or a solar pergola with slanted panels to block summer sun and allow the winter light in.

If your roof is facing north, it's ideal to pop as many photovoltaic cells for solar power as possible onto it. Even if it doesn't slope quite right, you can have the panels on a frame to maximise the sunlight they catch. Selling your excess power back to the energy company helps make a cleaner environment for everyone as we (hopefully) transition towards more sustainable energy sources.

A well designed home is the first step to living comfortably. It should include physical dimensions that suit the occupants and allow for adequate free movement through the spaces. Cramped living quarters will have a negative impact on relationships, as well as physical health. A balance needs to be found so that space is adequate but not excessive. Depending on your lifestyle, you may require more private spaces or give most of the space to shared areas. Renovations can include retrofitting of energy saving innovations such as skylights and breezeways.

Good design minimises wasted space to conserve the energy required for electricity based heating and cooling. Using natural, recycled and nontoxic building materials decreases the carbon footprint of a home and can be aesthetically beautiful. Choosing easy to clean materials indoors helps reduce dust and mould, which can trigger allergies and other health issues in susceptible people.

Vast open spaces can be challenging in terms of noise. Architects are experts in creating good acoustics in buildings, but if you do not have that luxury, soft furnishings and floor coverings will absorb excess sound. Different people will have varying levels of tolerance for noise, but generally we have a lot of sensory input in our daily lives and the health of our nervous systems benefits from harmonious aural environments. This also applies to the proximity to neighbours, to busy roads and other sources of noise such as construction, air traffic or industry in the area.

For many people, their home is much more than the dwelling that shelters them. It is also the land, the neighbourhood, the region and country in which they live.

Curtis and Jones (1998) define sense of place as "the meaning, intention, felt value and significance that individuals or groups give to particular places". When we begin to feel, not a sense of ownership over land but rather a sense of belonging to it, we have found a home. That home then becomes worthy of investing our time, financial energy and vital energy into protecting and enhancing.

When circumstances force people to become displaced, much of what is nourishing about a home gets lost. There are tangible losses that can be overcome but the intangible connections are tragically broken. Such loss and grief greatly diminishes a person's wellbeing. The Spanish word "destierra" succinctly describes the feeling of being displaced, dispossessed and uprooted from a place. Read (1997) identifies this devastating psychological wound felt by refugees and indigenous people who have lost their homes.

Even when people freely choose to move, there are still elements of this loss until they gradually make a new place their home. Often they feel split between two lands, feeling the equal pull and yearning of what is nurturing in each place. In our very mobile 21st century, many people are "homeless" in their hearts even when they have a building to sleep in.

Human beings like a certain degree of stability. We can cope with change, often welcoming novelty, but we thrive when we feel that some things are secure. A physical environment that does not radically change helps us to follow other desires and dreams. When homes are destroyed by natural disasters, as we have seen so frequently recently, that is heartbreaking. Even in relatively stable areas, people are fighting to save their homes from freeway expansions and industrial "parks". In such a state of survival, all the other aspects of wellness like fulfilling careers, self esteem, education, nutrition, meaning and self development fade into insignificance. Just like Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs, we seek to have a solid foundation of physiological security before we can grow.

Around the world, there is a movement towards increasing the sustainability of towns, suburbs and cities. Not just the "tree change" or the "sea change", but a "new urbanism" shaped by people who want to live in an urban environment but live better.

Active members of the community are informing town planners and developers that they want to live in areas where it is safe to walk, cycle or take public transport.

People are choosing to live in intentional communities where neighbours can have both privacy and social interaction. This kind of meaningful participation aims to create inclusive places where young people, the elderly, singles, couples and families can interact. Places where access is available for those with physical or mental disabilities and everyone feels welcome. More and more people are voicing and acting on a desire for the freedom of individual lifestyle choices and the diversity of activities that cities offer, without the pollution and isolation.

For optimal health, we need clean air, water, and soil. Our choices to drive less, harvest rainwater and grow food in our own or community plots are gradually gaining support. People seek safety from electromagnetic radiation, pollutants and toxins of every kind. Inside our houses, we can make decisions, which impact not just our own health, but the local community and beyond. The adage to "think global, act local" has never been more pertinent.

Thankfully, there is such a groundswell of change in society. As people struggle with utility bills, financial crises, environmental disasters and social dysfunction, they are also seeking their own wisdom and reaching for solutions that enhance their enjoyment of life without harming others. A healthy society is built of healthy individuals, each one feeding their own heart in order to contribute to the planet we all call home.

Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath.