Human Cities – Increasing Urban Wellbeing

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Therme Group Presents Vision of Urban Wellbeing for All

Therme Group believes in ‘wellbeing for all’ and is focused on realising this in cities all around the world. We play our part in this vision through sustainable and inclusive wellbeing resorts that champion nature, technology and culture, and form part of a connected city system. Human Cities is an accessible introduction to urban wellbeing. The paper summarises key topics and looks ahead to future developments in city wellbeing. Human Cities is freely available and Therme Group hopes it will stimulate discussion and collaboration among all those working towards improving life in cities globally.

Human Cities Events

Therme Group is planning a number of events based on the issues identified in the green paper. These will include diverse topics such as:

  • Art, culture, religion and spirituality
  • Diversity, inclusiveness and social integration
  • Environmental pollution, including noise and climate change
  • Finance, money & tax
  • Fitness, food and exercise
  • Infectious diseases & public health
  • Mental health: Stress, anxiety, sleep, isolation and loneliness
  • Smart cities and automation
  • The built environment, architecture, public spaces and housing
  • Traffic and transport
  • Water and nature in the city

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“In this publication, we are seeking to further the global wellbeing movement. The connections and debates the paper develops will contribute to our mission to improve wellbeing for all. It will enable us to work together with all people invested in the collective wave of innovation towards human cities of the future.”

Robert Hanea, Chairman and CEO of Therme Group.

Human Cities Executive Summary  

Therme Group’s green paper Human cities: Increasing Urban Wellbeing presents an overview of wellbeing in cities and how humans can thrive in urban environments, a topic the coronavirus pandemic has given increased attention and urgency. The paper draws on research from a broad range of academic disciplines including anthropology, geography, physiology, economics, art, psychology and architecture and uses clear case studies to present workable solutions to universal problems. Central to these is a need to bring nature into our urban environments. 

Over millennia, human beings have evolved within and in response to the natural environment. Today, over half the world’s population lives in urban environments, increasing at a rate of 65 million a year (UN) – a little over 100 years ago that figure was 20% and by 2050 it is set to rise to 68% (UN). Of the 108 billion people that have ever lived, according to the Population Reference Bureau, only 4% have ever lived in cities (Takooshian, 2005). Humans are a highly adaptive species, but even we are struggling to adjust to such a rapid shift. Cities can feel bewildering and overwhelming, causing people to long for contemplative, natural spaces.

Cities are exciting, tolerant places, where ideas and culture thrive. However, many inhabitants also suffer. Social inequalities, obesity, stress and anxiety, isolation, air pollution and little access to green or blue space are just some of the aspects of city life that negatively impact human wellbeing.

Over the last 6 months, the coronavirus pandemic has brought widespread attention to these pressing and multilayered problems. 

The central theme of Human Cities is interconnectivity. Humans are deeply connected to their environment – constantly interacting with, influencing and being influenced by it. These interactions include those with other humans. Cities are composed of complex, interconnected social and technological systems, and as the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted, humans are both vulnerable to and dependent on one another. 

The paper proposes that individual wellbeing is not just dependent on personal needs, but on the interconnected nature of all citizens.

Human Cities presents challenges and solutions associated with the four main dimensions of wellbeing – physical, mental, social and spiritual – showing how they overlap and intrinsically link to our environment. 

Physical Wellbeing

Human Cities builds upon current discussions surrounding preventative care, presenting several factors that influence the physical wellbeing of city inhabitants: transport, obesity, ageing populations and the physical effects of stress. Many aspects of city life – pollution, overcrowding, busy roads, stress – are bad for health and often impossible to escape – problems which are magnified by socio-economic inequalities. Understandably, Covid-19 has brought a renewed awareness of our bodies and of the physical health of city inhabitants, as well as highlighting existing inequalities.

Key points:

  • 500,000 deaths a year in Europe are attributed to air pollution (Kings College London)
  • 2 million people in London are living with illegal levels of air pollution (Centre for London)
  • In 2000, there were 371 cities with 1 million or more inhabitants. By 2018, there were 548. It is projected that by 2030, 706 cities will have at least 1 million or more inhabitants (UN).
  • Obesity is a growing issue in wealthier countries especially in urban environments. In sedentary jobs such as office work, workers can be sat for up to 15 hours a day. Just 6 hours can increase male mortality risk by 20%. For women, it’s almost double that. (Patel et al, 2010).
  • The proportion of the global population over 60 is expected to rise from 12% in 2015 to 22% in 2050 (WHO). In the future, urban infrastructure will need to be livable over the life course to prevent social isolation. 

Proposed Actions
Human Cities proposes that urban spaces should be designed with wellbeing as their primary purpose, placing public access to nature as a central consideration. Reducing car traffic, making cities more accessible by foot and bicycle, and introducing more public green spaces provides greater opportunity for inhabitants to exercise and walk around the city as it is safer and healthier to do so. 

Mental Wellbeing

Human Cities explores the growing conversation around urban environments and mental health. The built environment can have a significant impact on mood. Research has shown that mental health disorders disproportionately affect those living in urban environments. The paper recognises that common experiences of city life such as overstimulation, poor architecture, excessive exposure to technology, lack of natural environments and pressure to be productive can all aggravate feelings of stress. 

Key Points:

  • The WHO reported 450 million people globally suffering mental disorders, a leading cause of disability and death (2019). 
  • In the UK, mental health is the single biggest category of NHS spending*. At a cost of £110bn a year – more than double the cost of crime. (Royal College of Psychiatrists et al, 2011)
  • Research has shown that city dwellers are over 21% more likely to experience anxiety disorders and 39% more likely to experience mood disorders than those living in rural areas. (Jaap Preen et al.)
  • Growing scientific evidence shows green spaces and particularly trees are beneficial to mental health.
  • Research has shown that the benefits of being in and around water include positive moods and reduced negativity and stress (BlueHealth).
*Reported spend pre COV-19 pandemic

Proposed Actions
Humans often seek out calm, natural spaces to escape city stress. Human Cities suggests that creating a beautiful urban environment through sustainable biophilic architecture, alongside biodiverse green and blue spaces, has a powerful role to play in improving mental wellbeing. Moreover, the paper proposes that these solutions must encourage a wider sense of equality and participation in public life. Architecture has the power to exclude as well as include people. Unconscious biases can make places inaccessible to certain groups. Human Cities stresses the importance of addressing societal inequalities in city design to create an environment that benefits the mental wellbeing of all its inhabitants.

Social Wellbeing

Human beings are social animals – our relationships make us who we are. Human Cities demonstrates that fostering and supporting these relationships is key to building social wellbeing. Cities have the positive potential to unite disparate groups into one community, encouraging tolerance and collective citizenship. On the negative side, they can also concetrate poverty and discrimination. Human Cities presents several factors that can impact social wellbeing in cities including loneliness, street safety (especially for women) and livable neighbourhoods.

Key Points:

  • In London more than half (52%) of the population experiences loneliness. Studies have shown that feeling lonely increases the risk of developing heart disease, cognitive decline and depression. A lack of social connection is as much a risk for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day 
  • (Campaign to End Loneliness).
  • Research shows that around two-thirds of women in the US have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public spaces during their lifetimes (Stop street Harassment). 
  • Inhabitants are more likely to engage in social issues within their community if they feel a stronger connection to the people around them. 

Proposed Actions
Human Cities proposes that the public realm has an important part to play in increasing human connections. It suggests that resilient cities must provide collective social spaces such as parks and squares where people from all backgrounds can sit and be together. Therme Groups sees protecting public space as essential to building city wellbeing – plans for Therme Manchester include a grand public plaza including a biodiverse environment with footpaths and cycleways across the TraffordCity site.

Spiritual Wellbeing

As presented in Human Cities, Therme Group sees spiritual wellbeing as profoundly connected to physical, mental and social wellbeing. Urban migration is often driven by economic need. However, people everywhere look for something more. This search for greater meaning has always been a central part of the human experience. Starting with prehistoric cave painters, humans have always sought to express themselves and connect to others through art. 

Key Points:

  • Economists Richard Layard and David Lane have concluded that money alone cannot guarantee wellbeing. Past a certain point of comfort, the acquisition of money becomes about competition and status anxiety, which are antithetical to a sense of wellbeing (The Spirit Level, 2010).
  • Feelings of awe – such as those inspired by art, ritual or nature – have the power to challenge and update people’s worldview.

Proposed Actions
Human Cities proposes that art and architecture are central to making cities human. The paper argues that we need moments which allow us to find greater meaning to our lives, step outside of linear time and reflect on ourselves and what matters most. It recommends the creation of transformative artistic spaces geared towards reflection. It goes on to show that, through initiatives such as Therme Art, world-class art can be made accessible to and enriching for all. By taking art outside of the white walls of galleries and into public spaces, it is possible to bring people together in the presence of works that make a profound impact on spiritual wellbeing.

Therme Group’s Role in the Ecology of Wellbeing 

Therme Group’s global development programme will bring wellbeing resorts to cities in the UK, mainland Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific, giving us the ability to be a catalyst for positive, lasting improvements to urban wellbeing.

Therme Bucharest already welcomes 1.3 million visitors a year. Following planning approval for Therme Manchester in the UK, Therme Group plans to develop the concept in other UK cities and around the world, representing a major investment in the health and wellbeing of global communities.

All Therme Group resorts will be designed to be some of the world’s most advanced sustainable buildings, with exceptional energy efficiency and the highest level of water saving technology. Each resort will target LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum accreditation, or local equivalent, a certification already achieved for Therme Bucharest.

Nature and water are at the heart of the experience, with each resort home to more than 200 species of plants. Guests can enjoy thermal bathing traditions from around the world, fun and healthy activities for all ages and affordable wellbeing therapies, all in a biodiverse natural environment. Socially inclusive pricing will make these benefits to wellbeing accessible to all.

As is presented in Human Cities, there is a strong correlation between deprived, socio-economic groups and health challenges. Therme Group’s research indicates that our projects appeal to people across the board. In Manchester, for example, in-depth research among city and regional population showed that all socioeconomic groups were equally enthusiastic about the concept of a Therme Group resort. Our concept likewise appeals to families, young adults, older people, adults visiting in groups, couples and singles alike.

This gives Therme Group the potential to stimulate widespread, lasting change. Positive changes could be physical, such as by exercise classes and strength conditioning activities or through introducing healthy food ideas. Or it could be social and mental, by providing spaces where citizens can be together and relax in nature surrounded by spectacular artworks.

Our facilities also boost city profiles and economies by providing must-visit destinations, building city branding on the global stage; supporting local jobs, businesses and public revenues whilst driving technological and digital innovation.

 “Our resorts provide a vital piece of social infrastructure in our cities, creating relaxing and fun places to meet whilst also nurturing mental and physical health. Now more than ever, people living in cities need opportunities to have relaxing and affordable wellbeing experiences close to home. Our concept will fundamentally improve the way we will live in the future.”

James Mark, UK Chief Operating Officer.

Cities are complex, dynamic, shifting systems that both influence and are influenced by their citizens. As we emerge from coronavirus, health and wellbeing will be more important than ever. At Therme Group we want to bring people together in a movement for urban wellbeing. Together, we believe we can create the conditions for humans to thrive in urban settings.


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