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. 

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital and print design a...

    Recruitment Genius: Engineering Project Manager - Vehicle Design and Build

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Engineering Project Manager ...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Support Engineer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer and i...

    Recruitment Genius: Document Controller

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Document Controller is required to join a le...

    Day In a Page

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action