Town Planning from a Human Evolutionary Perspective

We can, as individuals, take responsibility for many aspects of our wellbeing, by adopting health behaviours that chime with our ancient physiology and mindset. But what about the urban environment in which we now live, arguably the very antithesis of the hunter-gatherers world? How might that be reconfigured to meet our personal evolutionary determinants of health, our deep needs for social and tribal interaction, and to engage with nature?

In 2010, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs predicted a major phase of urban expansion, in which the global population living in these cities will double in just forty years to a staggering 6.3 billion people. But will this expansion be driven primarily by high-rise, high-density developments on futuristic lines and ever higher technology? Since we need to avoid sick buildings, sick towns and sick populations, the focus should be on the naked apes that will live there. Townscapes should offer them at least a taste of their natural habitat.

Town planners in the UK have a long history of working closely with public health officials, at least from the 1840s to the 1940s, debating how air quality, sanitation and living conditions might be improved through better urban design. Some subsequent trends, however, suggest that the economics of regeneration and the accommodation of increased car-usage rather overshadowed the concept of general urban well being. The rise of the "Healthy Cities" movement, with the publication of the “Ottawa Charter” in 1986, heralded a return to wider social values for town planners.

A cityscape that positively encourages walking and cycling as the normal modes of urban propulsion through quiet streets, parks and segregated routeways will have cleaner air, healthier citizens, a smaller NHS budget and a more sustainable economy. An urban life-style reconfigured on the lines suggested by the Eden Protocol is not only economically-viable but promotes longer and happier lives.

There are many other aspects of urban life that town planners might consider from a human evolutionary perspective. These include the quality and form of residential flats, the provision of public transportation sysytems, parks and playing fields, the width of pavements, clean air and fresh water. Our project suggests that it is possible to develop a modern metropolis the size of London on palaeolithically-correct lines, showing not just how but why such a remaking of our cities can and must be achieved. Such a concept builds purposefully upon eg the “Healthy Cities” movement (Rydin et al 2012) as well as the thinking behind Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park, Hausmann’s boulevards and underpins the Garden City Movement established by Sir Ebenezer Howard. He advocated socially-well ordered town plans with public parks, open spaces and tree-lined streets separating industrial zones from residential areas. But laying out new towns and new suburbs on new sites are one thing: greening a gritty inner city borough is quite another.


Rydin, Y et al 2012 ‘Shaping Cities for Health: complexity and the planning of urban environments in the 21st century’, The Lancet published online 30th May 2012