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. 

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
fashion David Beckham fronts adverts for his underwear collection
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

    Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

    Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

    £30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

    UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape