How town planning can make us thin and healthy: Architects show that more green space and less housing density has a clear effect on public health

 

Health Reporter

It isn’t hard to find an architect who will tell you that vast swathes of the British urban landscape are ugly, grey and unappealing – nor would you struggle to find people who agreed with them. But could it be that the look and the layout of our cities is actually bad for our health?

A new report from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) sets out to prove just that. Comparing rates of physical activity, childhood obesity and diabetes in England’s nine most populous cities, RIBA have found a clear correlation between the amount of green space, density of housing in urban areas, and the overall health of the local population.  

They have also pinpointed the cities with the best and worst records on these key public health measures. Birmingham has the fewest physically active adults, while Liverpool has both the largest number of obese children and the highest rates of diabetes.

On the other end of the spectrum, the citizens of Leeds can boast the highest levels of activity while Bristol has the best outcomes for obesity and diabetes.

All four cities have plenty of parks – but it is the quality as well as the quantity of green space that counts, if people are to be encourage to walk around their city, go for a run, or let their children play outdoors, RIBA said.

Their report, “City Health Check”, found that the local authority (LA) areas which had the least physically active adults in the country – which included Birmingham’s Sandwell district, Brent in London and Gateshead in Newcastle – had on average twice the housing density of the most active areas and also 20 per cent less green space.

The pattern repeats itself even within an individual city. 69 per cent of land in Birmingham’s leafy suburb of Solihull is green space, and sure enough, the area has the lowest levels of childhood obesity of any LA in the study – 14.1 per cent. In Sandwell meanwhile, only a third of land is green space, and a quarter of children are obese.

A significant factor behind the gulf in health outcomes identified by RIBA is explained by the different levels of social deprivation across the country and across cities. Greener, leafier areas with a lower density of housing and well-maintained parks and pathways come with a house price premium. Richer people who can afford to live there can also afford to buy better food, pay for gym memberships and generally fit within a national pattern of health inequality – the richer the area you live in, the more likely you are to be healthy.

Nearly 26 per cent of children in Sandwell are obese (Alamy Nearly 26 per cent of children in Sandwell are obese (Alamy
Nevertheless, it’s clear that physical inactivity – a key cause of obesity and the catalogue of associated health risks – is a national problem. RIBA reports that 75 per cent of people living in the nine cities surveyed do not meet the Government recommended 150 minutes of physical activity every week. However, three quarters of people surveyed by RIBA said they could, in the right circumstances, be encouraged to do more walking each week.

Citing estimates suggest that the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes could be cut by 50 per cent if people were to meet physical activity targets, RIBA believes that the key to that encouragement – and an estimated £1bn saving for the health service – is better town planning.

“With responsibility for public healthcare devolved now from central Government to local authorities, it’s vital that planners and developers take the lead in ensuring healthier cities,” said. RIBA’s president, Stephen Hodder. “At a time of austerity and increased concern with physical and mental wellbeing, it’s shocking to discover that just by making public health a priority when planning cities, we can save the country upwards of £1bn annually through reduced obesity-related healthcare costs.”

But it isn’t simply the amount of green space a city has, according to his report, it’s the way it uses it.

Architects and urban designers could play a key role in “ mitigating the impact of a lack of green space and creating environments to support walking,” the report states.

Their practical recommendations include the creation of attractive, safe walking routes between green spaces, to encourage people to travel around the city by foot. Parks and recreations grounds themselves can be made more attractive as places to walk, run and play through simple measures such as improving walkways, letting in light by lowering any high walls or heavy vegetation and installing more bins and benches. 

Residents in different cities responded to RIBA’s survey with different priorities. Citizens in Birmingham said they wanted more attractive parks and green spaces – and 40 per cent of those who weren’t getting enough exercise said that such improvements would make them want to walk more. People in Manchester said that the aesthetics of the city’s streets were more important, while in Sheffield and Liverpool, safer pathways linking key areas of the city with green spaces were emphasised.

Dr Ann Marie Connolly, director of healthy equity at Public Health England, the Government agency which oversees local authorities health interventions said that RIBA’s recommendations were welcome.

“We support closer working of public health and planners at a local level. We have, for example, produced two briefings on obesity and the environment: one on  the regulation of fast food outlets, particularly near schools and the other on encouraging physical activity and active travel. The briefings provide local authorities with ideas for action on how to reduce the adverse effects of the built environment on peoples’ health,” she said.

Tale of one city: Birmingham’s big divide

Only separated by a few miles geographically, the districts of Sandwell in the north-west of Birmingham, and Solihull in the south-east, could not be further apart in terms of public health.

Nearly 26 per cent of children in Sandwell are obese – the highest level of any local authority area across England’s nine largest cities. Nearby Solihull, meanwhile, has the best rates – only 14.1 per cent. Income-related health inequalities play their part, but a glance at the maps of each area immediately suggests another underlying reason for the difference.

Whereas 69 per cent of Solihull’s land is taken up by green space, including two large parks, and only 3.4 per cent of the area is covered by housing, only one third of Sandwell’s land is green space – parks are smaller and housing density is 7.8 per cent, double that of Solihull.

Sandwell Council said it would look closely at Riba’s report, adding tackling childhood obesity through leisure programmes and improving access to green space. 

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

    Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

    £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?