• Category: Opinions | June 06, 2020

  • The link between good planning and good health is unequivocal. The quality of the built and natural environment has a significant impact on health and wellbeing.

    Considering the health implications of a particular development is not new to the planning world. The Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2017, national guidance, the London Plan and a number of local plans already encourage the submission of “health impact assessments” as part of the planning process. The 2017 Regulations specifically add human health to the list of environmental factors to be considered as part of the assessment. However, there has been a noticeable shift in attitude recently as climate change and wellbeing are taken seriously at a national and global level given the Covid-19 pandemic. The business case for healthy buildings and places now goes beyond energy, acoustics, visual acuity, broadband provision and carbon building performance, to include health and wellbeing and sustainability too.

    The focus is now on the quality of place and people’s quality of life. It is about developing a whole-system approach to tackling cross-cutting issues that cannot be addressed alone. These include strategies and policies on community integration, childhood obesity, physical activity, walking and cycling investment, mental health, natural environment, climate change and healthcare planning.

    How can planning play its part?

    The planning system has a central role to play with this in how places grow, develop and regenerate. In 2019, The Town and Country Planning Association published a report – The state of the union: reuniting health with planning in promoting healthy communities – which is even more relevant now. It had made 15 recommendations under eight themes for what needs to be done to ensure effective cross-sector collaboration to create healthier places.

    One theme was the emphasis on an integrated approach to planning for health and wellbeing. This involves having a specific legal purpose of spatial and land use planning for the health, safety and wellbeing of individuals and the population, implemented through future town and country planning legislation; making the use of health impact assessments a policy requirement; and having representative bodies of the health system to ensure that their respective delivery plans and strategies are aligned with planning. Health and climate change considerations must be embedded in planning decisions if you want to see change.

    Pulling the levers

    Local authorities could also drive transformative change if they fully utilised their planning powers more. There are levers to include health and wellbeing needs in decision-making on planning applications which are already in use, such as travel plans, design codes, HIAs, EIAs, and design and access statements, but there is no collective awareness of the potential of these tools. There could also be the creation of a dedicated public health and environment planning post, with responsibilities across planning, the environment, public health and healthcare to bring all streams together.

    Local authorities could also do more thorough their local development plans. For example, more authorities could be bringing forward policies on not having fast-food takeaways near schools to tackle childhood obesity. They could improve air quality by thinking strategically about their transport planning and environmental health powers, and promote active travel and physical activity through the design and adaptation of new and existing places, as Waltham Forest has done with its “mini-Holland” scheme. They could secure healthy natural environments by improving access to and provision of high-quality green infrastructure in developments and use technology to promote health.

    Oddly enough, some of these are gaining momentum now owing to the pandemic. Green infrastructure has popped up overnight in some local areas given the unprecedented levels of walking and cycling, which will help to encourage more people to choose alternatives to public transport when they need to travel, making healthier habits easier and helping ensure the road, bus and rail networks are ready to respond to future increases in demand.

    The pandemic has highlighted a gulf in wellbeing between those with ready access to nature – via a garden or a park – and those without. The natural world is fundamental to healing and happiness, and providing open space, play and recreation opportunities should inform the design and masterplanning processes of developments. We have also seen and read about BAME people being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Planning for health inequalities could alleviate such negative impacts and not compound the problem.

    Effect change now

    Developers and local government must introduce new solutions to prioritise and tackle loneliness. Lockdown has brought to the forefront social isolation and mental health issues. We have to think about how people use space and what solutions can be put in place, as well as giving a voice to people in order to develop solutions – perhaps through the creation of a citizens’ assembly. Changes could be made to neighbourhoods to boost social interactions by creating more green spaces on residential streets and designing new developments to incorporate shared spaces for people to meet each other and build relationships.

    It is clear that issues such as climate change, social isolation, mental health, obesity and health inequalities remain critical public health challenges for this generation, and the pandemic has pushed these concerns to the top of the agenda.

    The planning system can respond by making systemic improvements to policies and processes so that everyone can live healthier and happier lives. Better outcomes for people and places can be achieved. We can all ensure that our minds, bodies and buildings are in better shape.

    Original Article by Martha Grekos in the Estates Gazette

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