The allure of living by water

Studies have shown that living in close proximity to water can make us happier and healthier, as the residents at London City Island know only too well

If you’ve ever felt drawn to the ocean when restless or meandered along a river in deep conversation, you’ll have experienced the therapeutic effects of being near water. Indeed, studies over the past decade have confirmed what we as a species have known for millennia: the more time we spend by water, the happier and healthier we are.

This longing for the aquatic is both innate and universal – a throwback to our evolutionary roots, perhaps. According to a 2011 paper, 70% of the world’s population today lives within 5km of the closest water feature. Make that 5m for the residents of London City Island.

Set on a 12-acre island where the Thames meets the River Lea, this ‘mini Manhattan’ draws inspiration from the area’s maritime heritage. Here, you’ll find river walkways and public gardens, allowing islanders and non-residents alike to explore the waterside and make the most of its restorative effect.

As Dr Catherine Kelly, author of the forthcoming book Blue Spaces: How and Why Water Can Make You Feel Better (Welbeck, 6 May), points out: ‘The Earth is 70% water and our brains are 75% water, so we’re at some kind of harmony when we’re near water. It impacts us on many levels.’


Life next to 'blue space' makes us happier

In her book, she talks about our psychological response to ‘blue space’, whether that takes the form of oceans, rivers, lakes, canals or waterfalls.

‘If you live near a river or the sea, you’ll often be encouraged to get out and walk by it, or to get on the water and go paddle boarding or surfing, or to get in it and swim. So, ‘next to’, ‘on’ or ‘in’, improves our physical wellbeing through exercise. Secondly, it also improves our psychological wellbeing. The research shows us that it really helps to decrease our stress and improve our anxiety and depression. Thirdly, our social wellbeing. When we’re near water, we tend to connect with others more. So meeting people to go for a walk by the sea or the river, or to go for a swim together.’

Luckily for all Island residents, they’ll automatically become members of the City Island Arts Club which includes a private swimming pool. There is also a community of adventurous Islanders who regularly go kayaking from Trinity Buoy Wharf towards (depending on weather, tide and even the moon) the Thames Barrier at Woolwich, inbound to Greenwich or up Bow Creek along the lower River Lea.

“Living near water helps with our social wellbeing. When we’re near water we tend to connect with others more.”

Dr Catherine Kelly

‘When we’re in water, we’re immediately in our bodies,’ says Kelly, adding that you don’t have to be good at meditating or mindfulness or yoga. ‘Time is suspended when you’re in water. It reduces all the brainwave activity around ‘doing’ and ‘achieving’ and ‘producing’. We can’t engage with our electronics if we’re in the water, so it allows us to switch off in a way that’s enjoyable and doesn’t feel like a punishment.

‘We’re replacing that instant gratification of tech or food or whatever it is with peacefulness or fun. It’s joyful. The older we get, this idea of play is something that’s really beneficial to us as humans. Because when we’re laughing, we’re releasing happy hormones and they supersede all the stress hormones.’

Of course, not everyone can squeeze in a quick dip before work. But there are still ways in which you can bring the benefits of water inside your home, advises Kelly. She suggests taking a relaxing hot bath or having a cold shower – yes, cold. If you have a garden, consider putting in a water feature. Or if you live in a flat, make use of urban spaces with fountains or manmade ponds. ‘Anything like that,’ says Kelly. ‘Because it’s our sensory engagement with water that has the beneficial effect on our bodies and minds.’

And for London City Islanders, that’s as easy as looking out of the window.


Words by Theresa Harold
Illustrations by Giacomo Bagnara