In 2013, Sebastian Völker and Thomas Kistemann of the Institute for Hygiene and Public Health at the University of Bonn in Germany, published an article about the restorative power of the “urban blue” (abstract here: Völker and Kistemann developed an argument in favor of the potential for the urban blue, which they define as “all visible surface waters in urban areas” to provide positive human health outcomes, positively affect well-being, and ultimately to serve as therapeutic landscapes (114). To test the efficacy of the urban blue to provide these benefits, the researchers used geographic, ethnographic, and socio-psychological research methods to understand how people in Cologne and Düsseldorf perceived urban blue spaces through social interactions, activities, symbolic meanings, and environmental appreciation (115).

The researcher’s case studies focused on promenades in both Cologne and Düsseldorf well-known as important examples of urban waterfront planning. During the data collection process, the researchers ensured fairly consistent weather conditions for each site visit. Völker and Kistemann also conducted a spatial analysis including field mapping, analyzing aerial photographs, and counting pedestrians. The researchers also conducted participant-observation on multiple occasions, and distributed written questionnaires to 42 people between the ages of 16-80.

The researchers discovered health-enhancing and health-limiting aspects for each dimension of space under study. Of particular interest are the findings pertaining to the urban blue as experiential and symbolic. Study participants described benefits associated with multi-sensory engagement with the urban blue, desiring to be close to the water, watch it flow, listen to its sounds, and even smell the water in some cases, but also reported considerable adverse noise, particularly related to traffic on bridges crossing the river. People attributed symbolic, even “supernatural” or spiritual status to the river, finding inspiration for a sense of faith, creativity, and well-being near the waters, and also conjuring up feelings of being part of a wider world, or jogging memories of water experiences in other places, though also had some negative associations with the river’s potential for flooding (119).

Völker and Kistemann argue for greater consideration of the urban blue as an important element promoting human health and psychological well-being in cities. While the researchers concede the limitations of their methodologies as well as the lack of ability for their two-year study to consider long-term effects, they assert that their data suggest that “urban blue may be considered as a therapeutic landscape due to the specific mix of health-enhancing aspects” (122). They call for additional research sites, methodologies, and theoretical positions to expand the work they have started, analyzing and gathering empirical evidence in favor of the healing powers of the urban blue.

Full citation:

Völker, Sebastian and Thomas Kistemann. “‘I’m always entirely happy when I’m here!’ Urban blue enhancing human health and well-being in Cologne and Düsseldorf, Germany.” Social Science & Medicine 78 (2013): 113-124.

Post by Julia Triman