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AHA improves the health and well-being of Wake County residents by facilitating and supporting community initiatives.

Perspectives: Oxytocin and Designing Walkable Communities (October 2014)

Sara Merz, AHA Director

Sara Merz, Director

Did you know that oxytocin—the hormone that makes us feel connected to others, safe and well—is released when we touch, look into each other’s eyes and most notably, when we exercise, outside, particularly in groups?

I picked this up last month, along with so much other fantastic information, at the Rail-Volution conference for transportation planners and elected leaders, “building livable communities with transit.” There is a remarkable and growing interest in the connection between transportation and health, and it was great to hear from a wide variety of experts.

My favorite speaker was Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson/Nygaard Consulting, talking on neuroscience, walkability and health, and the implications for community design. My takeaway is this: we want to do whatever we can to promote more of this because it’s good for us and good for our communities.

I was fascinated when Tumlin described how humans read each other’s body language. A drop in shoulders when someone feels he or she has erred is often recognized by another person, and a totally unconscious process of forgiveness happens.

Bicyclists at Rail-Volution in Minnesota last month

Bicyclists at Rail-Volution in Minnesota last month

Seeing body language, and apparently, being able to see each other’s faces, in particular the whites of one’s eyes, is a piece of this. Our brains and bodies react, and over time that reaction creates a pathway in our brains that we “go to” more as it is used more.

This fits with our experience of feeling wound up and then taking a walk outside, and the world being right again. And it has implications for health, how we design our communities, and for what makes our daily lives happy and feel good. Interestingly, Tumlin said, we can’t change our biology. So we might as well use it to our benefit. While we intuitively know that being outdoors feels good, and social connection feels good, the science has caught up and now we can understand why. It feels good because it is good for us. For our physical health, our whole-person health, our social health, and the tone of our cities and towns.

The conclusion of the talk was about how to promote walking and active transportation as a means to an end – our health and happiness – and some specific strategies for doing this. The most interesting to me was #4 below:

  • Measure what matters – while measuring traffic counts, also engineer for people, and not just for cars. More people on the streets is MUCH BETTER FOR RETAIL, and the quality of the pedestrian experience, including tree canopy, is a determining factor.
  • Use the right tools, and use them correctly – get your local traffic demand model right, and make sure you know what you’re measuring and how it stacks against what is important.
  • Put the needs of daily life within walking distance – and make the walk delightful and seductive so it feels good.
  • Make cycling safe and pleasant for all ages. It’s more energy efficient than walking; in fact is the most energy efficient mode of transportation and is almost as space-efficient as walking. Focus on women, the 8-80 age group.

I asked Tumlin for book recommendations, and he had three, which I’m now reading simultaneously.

  • The Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery
  • Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck
  • And his own book, Sustainable Transportation Planning: Tools for Resilient Communities
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