I have moved home several times in my life. I have got so used to packing and unpacking that it has become a sort of second nature. You’d think that numerous relocations would teach me to get rid of superfluous trifles and knick-knacks. Well, they haven’t. Every new home comes with the usual ritual of finding a space for my pictures, my books, my collection of beer mats (stacked to save space), my flower pots, and so on.
Many can relate to this kind of phenomenon. The joy (and turmoil) of making a new space ‘yours’. And once you’re done with the house, the ritual moves outdoors. I call this process ‘explore and conquer’. You start by taking a short walk or drive in the neighbourhood, finding the way to the closest supermarket, or discovering shortcuts to commute to work. While doing so, you bump into a nice little park where you can take baby for a stroll and learn that the old lady living two houses down from yours has lived here for decades, knows virtually everyone in the area, and can give you directions to practically everywhere.
Of course, each person is different in approaching a new neighbourhood. I recall a friend of mine moving to a new town and deciding to simply knock at each and every door in his estate to introduce himself. Others (including myself) opt for more low-key acclimatisation strategies. Also, some people experience this process more than others, and some need a longer time than others. Nonetheless, whichever the modality or duration of the ritual when moving, most of us do essentially the same thing. We try to adapt to our environment, we learn to interact with it, use it more efficiently, and in some cases even modify it to meet our needs and preferences. The same thing happens to children when they learn to move around and begin to discover their surroundings – explore and conquer.
This process of adaptation requires energy, cognitive commitment, and emotional investment. As we adjust ourselves to new geographies, if conditions are satisfactory, we are likely to develop a form of attachment to them. In the same way we become attached to our relatives and friends as we grow up, we can grow a sense of connectedness to the places where we live, spanning from our home to our neighbourhood, our town, including even, for some, the entire country. Over time, some places become part of our identity and personal history, part of our self. So, carrying books and beer mats with me every time I move is not a bizarre compulsion (or at least, not necessarily), but an attempt to facilitate this process of adaptation and to negotiate my identity with the shape and form of my new whereabouts. By adapting, we transform an unknown space into a familiar place, a personalised dimension where we carry our daily activities with ease and autonomy. Familiar places foster our sense of belonging and agency. And that’s why where we live matters to our health and happiness.
Depending on how well social and physical aspects of the environment fit our personal resources and attitudes, places can influence our well-being and autonomy, as described in a recent excellent paper by Wahl and colleagues. Although their model focuses on ageing, it can be applied to any phase of life, because living in places that we like, where we function well, and which offer opportunities for social, physical, and mental stimulation can benefit our health and quality of life no matter our age. Conversely, being exposed to poor environmental quality (in the form of deprivation, physical decay, or hazards to mobility), to sources of stress (noise from traffic or pollution), or experiencing environmental changes such as gentrification can have a negative impact on the way we perceive a place, on how we feel about it, and on the ability to use it. These in turn affect health and behavioural outcomes (I discussed these issues in a recent review on environmental complexity and cognitive functioning).
Identifying factors that promote mental and cognitive health has gained growing interest across multiple disciplines and sectors, and, for this purpose, it is important to keep in mind that we don’t live in a vacuum, but that the places where we live influence us the same way as we affect them. Much progress on this has been done since eminent psychologists and social scientists such as Roger Barker, Kurt Lewin, James Gibson, or M. Powell Lawton (to name a few) proposed their ecological approaches to human behaviour, laying the foundations of environmental psychology. Over the past decades, the conjoined work of psychologists, sociologists, health geographers, architects, and urban designers has been crucial in creating places that support health and well-being.
However, new challenges lie ahead. In moving here and there for work or personal reasons, I am not an isolated case. People have always migrated, but, over the past decades, the trend has increased due to higher freedom of movement, the search for better socioeconomic opportunities or, more sadly, forced expatriation caused by conflicts and crises. At the same time, the world population is growing older – 1 in 5 of us is expected to be aged 65 and older by 2050, and our environments are becoming increasingly urbanised (see the World Health Organization’s 2007 Global Age-Friendly Cities).
Migration, ageing, and urbanisation, although offering opportunities for personal and societal progress, come also with a higher risk of displacement and with the challenge for individuals to redefine themselves and their lives within unknown spaces and societies. We live in a world where more and more people choose or are obliged to change their environments and may end up growing old in foreign places that are themselves changing. Some people are more vulnerable than others to these changes, be it an older person moving into a nursing home or a family of refugees being forced to leave their country. In this shifting context, researchers, policy-makers, and communities need to create places that are inclusive, enabling, and sustainable.
Examples of good practices and initiatives going in this direction are becoming numerous. See, for instance, the work done on universal design to provide accessible places to everyone or initiatives implemented by governments to promote the social and labour integration of refugees. I recently read with particular interest about a ‘dementia village’ in Hogewey, in the Netherlands, where older people with dementia live in a retirement village designed to follow the style of the time when they were young, so as to foster belonging and promote autonomy. The residents have shown clear benefits in their physical and mental health, making the award-winning village an example of a successful person-centred design strategy that I hope will be applied to future initiatives like this (especially considering that I may one day join a retirement community myself).
We all deserve to live a healthy and happy life, no matter our age or background. Understanding how places can contribute to that is a crucial step in advancing this narrative.
Marica Cassarino holds a PhD in applied psychology at University College Cork in Ireland.