Does the environment around you affect your quality of life?

From short-term changes in mood to long-term angst about what the future holds, COVID-19 has impacted our well-being in many ways. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam reported that Canadians’ mental health has declined during the pandemic. Two years ago, 68% of Canadians, aged 15 years and older, reported excellent or very good mental health, but the pandemic has changed that. In May 2020, less than half of survey respondents reported feeling very good or excellent about their mental health.

Not as straightforward to measure as mental health, well-being is a related construct that captures multiple dimensions of quality of life. It includes emotions, those immediate responses such as joy or fear, life satisfaction, where we reflect on our overall happiness or satisfaction with life, to eudaimonia, or whether we feel we are flourishing and living our lives with purpose.

Dimensions of well-being, from INTERACT’S Well-being primer

INTERACT is working to understand how our social and built environments, the people we spend time with and the places we go to, impact our well-being. We have worked hard to develop a well-being primer that provides an overview of the many constructs and measures used to capture subjective well-being. Within it, we focus on tools used by the INTERACT research team to measure well-being, explore how built environment studies have used these tools in the past, and position our research questions related to well-being. You can find the full primer at https://teaminteract.ca/well-being/

In the face of COVID-19’s major negative repercussions, such as loss of employment opportunities, limits on social interactions and daily mobility and increased social isolation and anxiety, cities have re-designed urban environments to facilitate physical distancing and improve quality of life under these difficult times. As part of her recommended health equity framework, Dr. Tam points to built environment transformations, especially in historically underserved communities, as a high impact area of action to respond to the pandemic and support health and well-being.

While we don’t yet know exactly how cities’ changes made in response to the pandemic impact well-being or quality of life, we can look to the literature to provide some clues. For example, we see that new greenways, bike networks, and place-making (particularly places with greenness) all have positive effects on physical activity, which in turn improves mood and overall happiness. In Spain, folks who participated in physical activity during the spring lockdown reported lower anxiety and a better mood than those who did not. The direct impacts of built environment interventions on well-being are not yet known, yet emerging research on the links between our environment, our behaviours and changes in well-being or quality of life can help guide decision-makers on ways to best design our cities as we respond to the pandemic. These interventions are also valuable opportunities to deepen our understanding of the interactions between our environment and our well-being.

As street reallocation programs of the summer are dismantled to make room for snowplows and the cooler weather keeps us indoors, what interventions can cities put in place to ensure we can stay moving, connected, and safe in our winter cities? How can we already plan for next spring? Which built environment interventions should become permanent?

The well-being primer makes it clear that more research is needed to generate robust public health evidence on the links between the built environment and health. That’s why INTERACT’s research is analyzing how built environment changes influence subjective well-being and for whom. To do so, we are using longitudinal surveys, smartphone data collection, and qualitative interviews in four Canadian cities, and closely monitoring how cities are transforming.

To join the INTERACT study, visit: teaminteract.ca/cities.

The well-being primer was prepared by Caislin Firth, and Karen Laberee, with support from Caitlin Pugh and Courtney Ross. Daniel Fuller, Meghan Winters and Yan Kestens reviewed the primer.

CIHR-funded research team harnessing big data to deliver public health intelligence on the influence of urban form on health, well-being, and equity.

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