Local Government Magazine

The Accidental Environmentalist: Building healthy cities


AECOM’s buildings and places specialist Guy Perry says that by focusing on our own health as people we’re also focusing on the wellbeing of our planet. He talks with Ruth Le Pla about what we could learn from Barcelona, Dubai, Warsaw and Hong Kong, and why it’s important not to make our lives too comfortable.

For Guy Perry’s eight-year-old son, the one thing guaranteed to tempt him away from his iPad is the sound of his friends playing outside. The chance to jump about and scream in the playground wins hands down every time. That’s possible, says Guy, because the family lives within earshot of an outdoor play area. And therein lies the rub.

Guy Perry - AECOM’s buildings and places specialist
Guy Perry – AECOM’s buildings and places specialist

As cities around the world continue to suck people into their orbit, the natural instinct is to build upwards. Think Dubai with its 900-plus high-rise buildings. Or the archetypal Hong Kong skyline dominated by mega-clusters of mega-skyscrapers.

Yet these are among the very cities where obesity levels are on the rise. Moreover, the link between high-rise buildings and high-rising levels of obesity is startling. Not to put too fine a point on it, research shows you’re most likely to find the fatter and diabetic people roosting at the top of the buildings.

Guy (pronounced ‘Gee’ in the French way) sees it as the duty of city leaders, planners, architects and everyone else involved in designing our urban lives, to scale fast-growing cities to real human needs.

“You have to make it really convenient for kids to be kids and for people to be people.”

Guy is AECOM’s executive director, buildings and places, for the Asia Pacific region. Now based in Hong Kong, he talked with Local Government Magazine on a recent trip to New Zealand to meet up with local authorities and / or iwi in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch.

He says designing to a human scale probably suggests a certain densification but it doesn’t mean Dubai or Hong Kong-type densification. “You can achieve very high density environments with four- or five-level buildings like in Barcelona. You don’t have to go to high rises.”


Guy says there are two main reasons why mayors and local authority chief executives need to really focus on what is good for their constituents as human beings.

“One is for people’s own wellbeing, obviously, so we all have better lives and that means scaling things back to what humans need as opposed to over-facilitating our lives.”

He emphasises it’s about needs not wants and that, despite his role as a service provider, he also believes he must challenge assumptions intelligently and drill down into what may be a client’s deeper objectives.

“If you’re a city father you want people to want to be in your city: and that creates value,” he says. “But making that city attractive doesn’t necessarily mean making it the easiest city to drive cars around.”

Such messages may have been lost on the architects of places like Dubai, which stands sentinel to an oil-era boom.

In contrast, Parisian traffic planners have been progressively reducing the number of lanes going into the city, and making more room for buses and bicycles instead of cars. Similarly, notes Guy, Zurich is designed like a big village in which it’s “really hard” to drive a car.

To Guy’s mind, a well-designed city helps people take exercise naturally as part of their daily activities. While there are varying definitions of what ‘walkable’ means in practice, Guy says he uses it to mean something is within a five- to 10-minute walking range.

“We have to focus on people’s wellbeing in spite of the temptations to facilitate their lives to a fault,” he says. “We’re not doing people a favour to not let them walk, get out or take a few flights of stairs.”

He says he can draw direct links between good health statistics among the populations of Manhattan, some parts of Paris, London’s Knightsbridge area or central Zurich, for example, and the fact these places are designed to enable people to walk.

“People in the west end of London – Knightsbridge and places like that – have a life expectancy of over 90 years.”

And while socioeconomics does undoubtedly play a role – it’s pretty easy to spot these are some of the posher parts of town – Guy says their walkability factor is key.

“The interesting thing is that the people who really have means choose to live that way. The people on the east side of New York – in Manhattan – are super-rich. Does it bother them to walk down the street? No. They celebrate that they can walk to places locally.

“In Zurich, you have bank presidents taking the trams or the train, or walking or taking a bike. That’s just part of life and statistically, yes, that society is quite fit.”


Guy’s second message for local authorities is that such a focus on people’s wellbeing creates as a by-product a lower carbon lifestyle and environment. “That’s the beauty of this approach.”

Guy says there’s a “remarkable correlation” between places that are healthy for us and places that are low carbon.

So Barcelona, for example, has a much lower carbon footprint environment than, say, Houston.

“A lot of people say they’re going to be environmentalists. I say, let’s focus on our wellbeing as people because that’s the biggest incremental gain vis-a-vis protecting the environment.

“The beauty of it is that by focusing on our own wellbeing we’re focusing on the wellbeing of our planet.”

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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