Designing healthier places

Sue Morgan, Executive Director of the Design Council, discusses the relationship between health and well-being and active travel

This spring, Design Council published our new strategy, setting out our three interlinked priorities for the next four years: to improve the nation’s health and well-being, enable sustainable living and improve people’s design skills so they can best respond to these and other challenges. Just as we launched our document, the coronavirus pandemic took hold and lockdown swiftly followed.

Almost instantly, we saw the pandemic bring our key strategic aims into sharper focus. Health and well-being dominated the news agenda, not only in terms of the direct health impacts of the virus, but also how people were coping with issues including enforced isolation. As we all experienced prolonged confinement in our homes, many of us across the UK (and beyond) recognised how the quality of our homes, access to green space and local social infrastructure can enhance or undermine our physical and mental health. We also saw very clearly how more deprived communities were disproportionately affected by the virus and the correlation between this and lack of access to nature and bad quality homes.

The factors that contribute to good health and well-being are broad and interlinked – and go far beyond the built and natural environment alone: deprivation; socio-economic and ethnic background; reliable employment; housing security; access to healthy food; and broader trends such as an ageing population. When it comes to the environments that we live in, the built and natural environment plays a significant role in deepening or relieving many of these wider determinants of health. Healthy placemaking has been a core part of Design Council’s work for many years. Our work aims to reduce non-communicable diseases by shaping the built environment so that healthy activities and experiences are integral to people’s everyday lives.

Over years of work championing healthy places, we have summarised five attributes of a neighbourhood that can support better physical and mental health:  

Physical activity: increasing walkability in buildings and neighbourhoods and encouraging healthy modes of transport.

Healthy food: improving access to healthier foods.

Social contact: designing well-connected housing and neighbourhoods that provide access to facilities and amenities to reduce social isolation and loneliness.

Contact with nature: providing access to the natural environment, including parks.

Pollution: reducing exposure to air and noise pollution.

This all adds up to compact, mixed-use, walkable neighbourhoods with leafy streets and great parks. And this is part of what we seek to achieve through our work in delivering independent strategic design support and advice to local authorities, developers and estates. Indeed, we have worked on more than 4,000 projects since 2011. We are constantly working with project teams to encourage sustainable, healthy travel, thinking about how strategic planning, streets, landscape design and public transport come together to enable walking and cycling: from advising on the transport and green infrastructure in Barking Riverside to drive better health and well-being in this NHS Healthy New Town, to providing strategic design support to the States of Jersey in their new masterplan in St Helier, resulting in better streets, spaces and connections to the town centre from the waterfront.

Of course, healthy placemaking extends beyond our immediate homes and neighbourhoods to incorporate infrastructure, and not just at a local but a national scale. This means looking at how our existing infrastructure systems can support and better integrate intermodal transport, making it as easy as possible to reduce car use. Decent Council’s recent ThinkStation programme, run in partnership with Network Rail – just one of the major infrastructure providers that we support – shows that this is exactly what passengers, rail and industry experts want.

Active By Design
Much of this valuable work builds on the insight from Design Council’s Active By Design programme which made a powerful case for taking action to tackle 21st century health problems through the places we build for. Our Active By Design guide provides a series of principles to respond to the rise in lifestyle-related disease by championing design in the built environment that makes active travel core to how we work. The document includes positive case studies; from the award-winning New Road in Brighton which has transformed a neglected street into an attractive and welcoming space for pedestrians; to a playful design in the Odenham subway in Stockholm, involving the transformation of set of stairs which into musical piano keys, tempting 66 per cent of people from using the escalator.

Back in the UK, there are many encouraging examples of local authorities have making significant strides in creating healthier places and encouraging behaviour change. For example, the popular Mini-Holland scheme in Waltham Forest with its focus on improving cycle infrastructure to make cycling safe and accessible, has quickly become a model for other councils looking to reduce congestion and improve air quality.

During the pandemic we’ve seen communities find creative ways to reclaim their streets from vehicles, embrace wider pavements and abandon their cars, contributing to better physical and mental health outcomes. We’ve also witnessed people returning to their local town centres or high street post-lockdown, revitalising their importance as local people shun the city centre.

Whether or not this continues remains to be seen. But these recent patterns show is that our high streets – once the heart of civic life – are still vitally important and should be protected. We cannot underestimate the social value of high streets, including the vital role they play in tackling loneliness and depression, as communities form and are bound together by the places where they gather. As a partner on the High Street Task Force, Design Council is working to empower local leaders to improve their own areas, considering how the high street can remain relevant to local people despite changes in consumer habits, serving people with a variety of needs and not simply those with spending power.

Barriers to adoption
There are, of course, barriers to ensuring that healthy places are created that need to be recognised and overcome, as our 2018 Healthy Placemaking research report has found. The research showed, for example, that most built environment professionals are still not using data and insight to identify local priorities. Additionally, many practitioners expressed frustration at not being able to make changes as healthy placemaking is still seen as a luxury rather than a necessity. They offered many suggestions on changes they can make within their industry to ensure healthy placemaking is on the agenda. These included more opportunities to work collaboratively, more evidence on impact and the economic value of healthy placemaking, changes to practice and policy, support to local authorities and a centralised repository for case studies and ‘how to’ guides.

Design Council continues to work to influence government policy for healthier places, streets and active travel. By sharing our research and expertise, often in collaboration with others, we hope to positively influence government decisions at a planning level, ensuring that neighbourhoods are organised with healthy activities alongside housing growth. For example, we recently announced a new strategic partnership with Sustrans – a charity dedicated to connecting towns, cities and the countryside through their research and projects across the UK, and through a network of traffic-free routes, acting as the caretakers of the National Cycle Network.

In conclusion, Design Council is making significant strides forward in creating places that promote health and well-being, and we look forward to achieving even more in the years ahead. Reshaping our built environment, considering quality homes and green spaces, along with the ways that people move around their neighbourhoods and connect with one another, is a fundamental part of tackling the major health issues we are facing. Working together, we can bring about positive and lasting change.

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