Imagine two neighbourhoods. The first one is located near the city centre, but not too close, so the noise and hustle of the big city are filtered out. You live in a house nearby a beautiful green park where you take your dog out for a walk on a daily basis. On the way to your university, there is a sports centre and nice cafés you can pay a visit to, depending on the mood of the day. Every service you could need is reachable within a small cycling distance. The second neighbourhood is a very densely populated area, the main view being rows of endless rooftops. There is a busy street next to your house, but you are used to the honking and passing cars. You spend a big part of the day in a bus getting to and going back from university. The question is: in which neighbourhood would you want to live in?
This is an obvious example of how the area you live in affects your everyday life. The first option offers a lot of different opportunities and activities to engage with your living area; park, cafés, sports centre together with well-arranged pedestrian roads. The latter neighbourhood on the other hand does not offer as much easily reachable engagement activities. But what does engagement actually mean? In its essence, it refers to the action of participation and involvement in different activities. It relates to the feeling of belonging and gives what you do a sense of meaning and purpose. Engagement has many forms: it can occur between employees and their job, students, students and their study, and citizens and their neighbourhood. The list is endless. However, I want to take a closer look at three forms of engagement in relation to the neighbourhood you live in: cultural, social and community engagement. Cultural engagement refers to activities that are culturally enriching: a visit to a theatre, library, or museum. Social engagement means participation in society, or a social group: volunteering or being a member in a football club. Lastly, community engagement is defined as working collaboratively with groups within a certain area and having the shared interest to improve collective wellbeing . From the neighbourhood description above, it is pretty evident which environment is more engaging to its residents, because there are all kinds of possibilities of what you could do outside your house. But why do these engagement opportunities matter so much?
There is a body of literature studying the relationship between different types of engagement effect on health and wellbeing. Social, cultural and community engagement have positive effects on mental and physical health, and therefore one of the important questions around the topic is the accessibility among different social groups, and how to improve pathways to engagement for these groups . So it is not only important to think which form of activity is the most engaging and effective for wellbeing, but to realize that not everyone has equal opportunities to these activities in the first place. People from lower socioeconomic groups, ethnic minorities, and marginalized groups are the ones most commonly living in more disadvantaged areas. These areas are characterized by poorer living conditions, lack of maintenance, density of housing, lack of green areas and less access to services. Daily hassles that affect everyday life such as traffic jams, and loud noise, together with chronic strains that demand behavioural adjustments over long lasting time, e.g. poverty, are major occurrences that may cause stress to an individual that damage physical and mental health . So the living area and how it is structured, together with other constraints, plays a major role in the development of wellbeing, health, and the quality of living.
Think about the Covid-19 pandemic. During the first lockdown our life changed drastically, and we were forced to stay at home and keep social contact to a minimum. Suddenly, because of this change, people started to notice and the small pleasures in lifemore, when maybe before they may have been taken for granted. What kept me going personally were daily walks (when it was allowed) in a forest behind my house. Unfortunately, not everyone has similar access to green outdoor areas like I did. And to demonstrate why this small engagement is so important: studies have shown over and over again how engagement with nature improves health and wellbeing through boosting mood and self-esteem, and preventing illnesses, such as mental health issues and cardiovascular disease  . In fact, living in less green residential areas, the likelihood of 11 disease categories is at least 20% greater  . Only 120 minutes in nature, no matter the type of engagement, has positive effects for health and wellbeing . Therefore, wellbeing is interdependent of individuals and their environment; and nature is only one example. The same also applies to other cultural and social activities: engagement in either has been shown to have positive effects on mental health and prevention of mental illness . In fact, participants of a study indicated how access to cultural and social activities together with education and volunteering strengthens individuals . Special importance was put on access to health and social care, and public transport.
Furthermore, community engagement can increase physical and psychological health through the boost in self-confidence, self-esteem, sense of empowerment and social relationships . There might in some cases also be negative effects, such as stress, which is again a risk to wellbeing, but the majority of findings were positive. Community engagement has a positive effect on health; however, it is also community engagement itself that is needed to distinguish specific community related issues and further taking action to solve them. Therefore, it is important that all citizens involved are included in the decision making, for example through a neighbourhood committee. Specifically, community engagement is crucial in reducing health inequalities among different social groups; tackling social inequalities through collective decision making will hopefully lead to reduced health inequalities.
In the end, it is a complex web of different factors affecting an individual’s health and wellbeing. An optimal living environment is certainly not harmful for one’s health. What is needed is a positive trigger, and activities that enable the residents to engage in different activities within their environment (social & cultural engagement) and active inclusion of the marginalized groups in community decision making (community engagement). The increase in engagement through these activities could improve someone’s life drastically, and lead to better health outcomes. Cycling is a better option than a bus for an individual’s health in most cases, thus by creating optimal pedestrian roads to a neighbourhood, better opportunities for cycling instead of taking the bus are enhanced. We are part of our environment and our decisions are affected by it through direct opportunities or indirect messages. Engagement with culture, community and natural assets are important factors in improving public health, but also tackling health inequalities  and therefore the importance of these assets should not be overlooked. Remember the second neighbourhood described in the beginning of this essay? With proper planning and adjustments, that neighbourhood could reach its potential and become visibly more cosy, attractive, and engaging.
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