Evidence

Evidence supporting the health benefits of a Sense of Place 

Authors: Alex Kleeman, Julianna Rozek, Dr Lucy Gunn, Professor Billie Giles-Corti.

A growing body of evidence, predominantly from the USA and Australia, links urban design features to residents’ sense of place, which in turn is associated with physical activity and mental health.  

Scope of evidence

To date, studies are predominantly from urban areas with less research in rural and regional settings. The evidence in this section is mostly from the physical activity research field. This has focused on defining how the built environment affects residents’ perceptions of sense of community, social capital and social connections, and how these may be influenced by the sense of place attributed to a neighbourhood.  

The following identifies features of the built environment that contribute towards developing a good sense of place.

In this section you will learn more about: 

See a summary of the above evidence

Access and connections 

Access to local destinations such as schools, shops and activity centres, helps to maintain social connectivity. This section summarises evidence linking pedestrian-friendly environments and public transport access to sense of place.  

For more information about urban features that contribute to good movement networks and associated health benefits, refer to the Movement Networks design feature. 

Pedestrian-friendly movement networks 

Designing neighbourhoods to encourage people to walk creates opportunities for social interaction, and helps promote a sense of community, social capital and social cohesion.  [17]  

Residents living in higher density pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods are more likely to engage in social behaviour - such as neighbourly interactions and participation in community activities. They also tend to feel a greater sense of community than residents living in car-oriented neighbourhoods.  [18] More walkable environments, with mixed-use planning, pleasant neighbourhood aesthetics and connected street networks promote: 

Walkable neighbourhoods also encourage walking for transport and recreation, which has been found to be positively associated with: 

  • Sense of community  [30, 31]  
  • Happiness  [32] 
  • Perceiving your neighbourhood to be safe and interesting  [14, 33]  

Pedestrian infrastructure, such as bench seating, contributes to creating “social and convivial streets”.  [20] Importantly, it may enable and encourage older adults to access local services on foot and maintain interactions and connections with their community.  [28, 29] 

Public transport 

Access to convenient public transport is also important for encouraging social participation. A Grattan Institute review into “social cities” found that people with limited access to transport had difficulty participating in weekly social activities, and were more likely to report being isolated and with lower levels of wellbeing.  [4] Lack of access to public transport is also linked to dissatisfaction and poorer quality of life.  [34] On the other hand, better public transport access within one’s neighbourhood increases satisfaction with social contacts  [35] and helps build social capital.  [36]  

Neighbourhood uses and activities 

Neighbourhoods with a mix of land uses and diversity of places within walking distance of homes support social connectivity.  [4] Having a range of places for people to meet and interact – deliberately and through chance encounters – creates more vibrant neighbourhoods that help people connect with one another  [4, 37] and feel a sense of community.  [4, 38] 

Public facilities or places where people can interact include neighbourhood and town centres, parks and other green spaces, public squares or plazas, and places for specific activities, such as community centres or sports and recreational facilities.  [4] Ensuring residents’ have access to public space is therefore crucial.  

One study found placing public facilities near homes was much more effective in increasing residents’ sense of community than simply providing community empowerment programs designed to facilitate community interactions and connections.  [39]  

Even ‘in-between places’ around homes (e.g. the spaces between indoor and outdoor settings, such as porches and front yards) increase social interaction between neighbourhood residents  [37, 40] and particularly enhance the social health of older adults, with social health defined by the World Health Organization as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.  [37] 

The co-location or shared use of community facilities such as school sporting facilities and libraries can increase their use, and offer additional opportunities for social interaction. For example, farmers’ markets held on school or community centre grounds not only provide healthy, affordable food choices in under-served areas.  [41] They also provide a gathering place for locals and can help foster a sense of community.  [41] For more information see the Community Facilities design feature. 

Preserving visual reminders of heritage and a strong cultural identity help to create a sense of place. A report by English Heritage found adults who live in neighbourhoods with more historic features and who cite a local building or monument as special, had a stronger sense of place,  [2] self‐esteem and place attachment. [3] 

Neighbourhood and town centres 

Neighbourhood or town centres with a range of destinations and services, such as shops, cafes and restaurants, banks and pharmacies, act as meeting places for social activities and provide opportunities for chance interactions between members of the community.  [4] They support:  

  • Social interaction  [25] 
  • Sense of community  [25, 26, 42] 
  • Social capital  [23, 43-46] 
  • Community engagement  [27]  
  • Neighbourhood participation  [46, 47]  
  • Satisfaction and quality of life  [34] 
  • The general ‘happiness’ of residents  [48] 
  • Social ties between residents who live further away from each other within a community  [49] 

The layout and configuration of town centres affects the social benefits they provide. Walkable main street centres have more pedestrian activity than big-box, car park dominated centres.  [50] This increases opportunities for social interaction, and facilitates the development of social capital and positive mental health.  [31] Main streets are characterised by higher commercial floor space to land area ratios (a measure indicating smaller building setbacks and less parking).  

Several studies have found main streets to be positively associated with sense of community.  [30, 31, 51] Large ‘big box’ shopping centres, on the other hand, tend to discourage walking (as they are primarily designed for cars) and hinder the creation of local social capital, sense of community and neighbourhood satisfaction.  [17, 31, 44] 

Public open spaces 

Public open spaces are important places for social interaction, and contribute to creating and maintaining community cohesion and social capital.  [21, 45, 52] They also provide opportunities for exposure to nature, which has a positive effect on mental health.  [20, 32, 56]  

In ‘smart growth’ communities – a design approach centred on delivering compact, walkable urban centres – small urban parks known as ‘pocket parks’ are often provided in lieu of private backyards, which facilitates residents’ interaction.  [53] For example, a Danish study of pocket parks in the densest neighbourhoods of Copenhagen showed that most residents used pocket parks for socialising or restoration purposes.  [54] There is also evidence that those who use parks have a greater sense of community and sense of safety than those who do not.  [55] 

Indeed, “social interaction [is said to be] an inescapable part of what makes green space, and experiences of it, meaningful for users”. [57 p.7]  Green spaces should offer a balance of diversity, distinctiveness, popularity, attractiveness, and comfort to facilitate positive outcomes.  [58] Some evidence suggests that the quality of green spaces may be more important for creating community attachment or a sense of community than the supply of such spaces, alone.  [45, 59] 

Open spaces that cater for a multiple users and a diverse population can facilitate chance encounters between users and foster a greater sense of community.  [38] The use of public space is often dependent upon the local context of the neighbourhood, such as the culture, social values, and climate, as well as the physical features and amenities of the space.  [60]  

More vulnerable groups, such as older adults, may be reluctant to use or interact with others in open spaces because of safety concerns.  [61] However, well designed and maintained parks with natural surveillance can serve as an important resource in fostering social contact between older people and their neighbours  [62] and impact positively on their social life.  [37, 63] ‘Micro-features’ (i.e. benches and street furniture) have also been found to enhance older adults’ enjoyment of green spaces, and can positively impact their social capital and cohesion.  [64] 

Refer to the Public Open Space design feature for further information. 

Community gardens 

Community gardens are “collaborative projects on shared open spaces where participants share in the maintenance and products of the garden, including healthy and affordable fresh fruits and vegetables”.  [65] Using community gardens builds social support, social interactions and sense of community.  [20] The many social and health benefits of community gardens include:  

  • Improved physical fitness through gardening activities  [65-71]  
  • Stress relief, relaxation and improved mental health  [20, 68, 69, 72]  
  • Facilitating positive interaction between socially and culturally diverse individuals  [71]  
  • Fostering community capacity and social capital  [73] 
  • Building social connections through the sharing of produce with neighbours  [65, 69]  

For more information see the Healthy Food design feature. 

Sports facilities  

Neighbourhood sports and recreational centres are important places for regular physical activity and social interaction, and help foster a sense of community. Access to sports facilities promotes social capital within neighbourhood residents.  [24] Communal open spaces and fitness amenities, such as basketball courts, tennis courts, and swimming pools, promote place-based social relationships and place attachment amongst neighbourhood residents; and are strongly associated with their overall level of neighbourhood participation.  [46, 47]  

Participating in sport or active recreation brings people together, strengthens social ties and networks and encourages a sense of belonging. It can help reduce anti-social behaviour and violence, enhance physical function, and promote social interaction and integration.  [74] Research in rural Western Australia has highlighted the importance of being a volunteer or player in sporting organisations as a means of building social capital.  [75, 76] 

Perceptions of safety 

Residents’ feelings of safety at home and in their local neighbourhood can affect how connected they feel in their neighbourhood.  [4] Residents who feel unsafe may constrain themselves and limit their community outings and involvement, especially in public places. This has a negative impact on their physical and social activities, sense of community and social capital.  [4, 20, 37, 77-80] Crime and traffic concerns, for example, are associated with a negative sense of community.  [30, 44] They also reduce the potentially beneficial effects of neighbourhood features, such as sidewalks, trees, or greenery, on social cohesion  [81] and life satisfaction.  [82] 

Perceptions of safety are influenced by a range of personal, social and built environment factors. Feelings of safety are associated with built environment attributes that promote visibility and natural surveillance, or reflect social control and place attachment.  [19, 32, 37] People are more likely to walk in pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods where they feel safe and comfortable.  [83, 84] 

Conversely, motor vehicle traffic and parking negatively affect social interactions,  [4] perceptions of helpfulness and an area’s perceived level of friendliness and safety.  [85] Areas with lots of retail that attracts strangers and fosters high levels of pedestrian activity may also be perceived as unsafe by residents.  [31, 77] There may be a threshold beyond which the destinations or land uses that generate social interaction, and the car and pedestrian traffic associated with them, detrimentally affect social connections.  [43, 86] Research is needed to clarify the optimal mix of land uses that enhances social capital and health outcomes. 

Considerable attention has been given to how the built environment can be designed to reduce fear and incidence of crime, and improve quality of life.  [87] Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is based on the principle that both the possibility of offending and people’s perceptions of safety, is influenced by the design of the urban environment.  [88] Natural surveillance is one aspect of CPTED, as potential offenders are discouraged from offending by the increased risk of being caught. Natural surveillance is enhanced by adequate street lighting, mixed land uses that create lively neighbourhoods and encourage pedestrian activity at different times of the day and night, and walking and cycling paths visible from surrounding houses and buildings.  [87] Permeable fencing and landscaping also help to create opportunities for natural surveillance.  [19]

Summary of evidence 

Walking for transport and recreation is positively associated with sense of community, happiness and living in neighbourhoods perceived to be safe and interesting.  [14, 30, 31-33] 
More walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods with connected street networks promote social interactions, social capital, sense of community, and community engagement.  [12-14, 19, 20, 22-25, 27]   
The presence of local shops or neighbourhood centres, and the provision of community infrastructure and facilities, are important for encouraging social interaction, sense of community, social capital, community engagement, neighbourhood participation, satisfaction, quality of life, and the general ‘happiness’ of residents.  [23, 25-27, 34, 42-48] 
The layout and configuration of town centres is important for delivering social interactions and benefits. Main street centres are associated with increased sense of community.     [31, 51] 
Public open spaces that cater for multiple users encourage a sense of community by facilitating chance encounters between individuals.  [38] 
Sports and recreation facilities are important places for fostering social interaction and neighbourhood participation. They contribute to the development of a sense of community and social capital.  [46, 47, 74-76]