UCL's Evolutionary Determinants of Health & URBAN WELLBEING

As a UCL alumnus, Biofit's Founder Matt Morley recently spoke to Gustav Milne, Honorary Senior Lecturer at University College London and a member of the Evolutionary Determinants of Health & Urban Wellbeing program, about his group's efforts to introduce evolutionary correct urban planning policies to the capital.

Q: Gustav, what are your objectives with this program and how would you ideally wish to influence the townscape of London?

A: Firstly, we aim to promote human locomotion for active commuting to and from school or work through pedestrianization and car-free walkways, river walks, canal towpaths, the widening and greening of pavements, improved CCTV (for security on designated backstreets), designated cycle lanes, designated pedestrian routes from main stations, improving inner city air quality and introducing a 20mph speed limit on main high streets.

We also promote the concept of active buildings for workplace, school, university and public buildings, coupled with management regimes that support active work and good dietary practices. 

The final area we focus on is promoting the concept of evolutionary-concordant nutritional regimes and food production processes.

Q: You have previously written about a sick city syndrome resulting from a mismatch between our paleolithic genome and the urbanized world today; in your view how long has this been the case? 

A: The major problems are based on changes to diet, activity regimes and social organisation, these can be traced back to the advent of large-scale farming and subsequently the development of urbanisation, between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. 

It is a sobering thought that for pre-urban or non-urban societies, conditions such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, various cancers and dementia seem to have been rare or non-existent. 

The study of skeletal remains at Roman cemetery sites in Britain shows that Roman town life introduced us to scurvy, rickets, gout, tuberculosis and leprosy. None of these diseases or conditions were seen in the prehistoric, largely unurbanised tribal populations that lived here before the Roman invasion of AD 43.

Q: Given most urban professionals lead fairly sedentary 9-5 lives during the week, what kinds of activity or movements would you deem to be evolutionarily correct for our bodies?

A: A regular daily walk and as little time sitting down as practical - aim to break up long periods of desk-bound work with at least five minute breaks each hour. If your daily lifestyle does not include much bending, stretching, carrying or manual work (at least not compared with the hunter-gatherers daily activity and survival regime) then try to develop such a regime and embed it into your daily life; something as simple as dancing can help fill the movement gap for example. 

Always remember however that such an activity regime needs to be matched by an evolutionary-concordant nutritional regime. 

Q: How important is spending time in nature for those living in an urban environment from your evolutionary perspective?

A: Time spent with pets, gardening or in parks and gardens is absolutely crucial not just for the psychological uplift but also for interaction with the microbiota that educate and support a healthy immune system. For children, this is of fundamental importance. 

Houseplants, window boxes and so on all have a positive role to play as well. Offices, streets, domestic buildings and the public realm all need to be greened and City Farms should be actively promoted especially in a inner-city neighborhoods lacking a large central park. 

Further reading:  http://www.ucl.ac.uk/edenprotocol