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
News
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
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

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine