Urban planning

Reconnecting health and planning. Not a new idea, just a good one.

By: Kate Henderson CEO Town & Country Planning Association
Published: Monday, January 5, 2015 - 18:13 GMT Jump to Comments

It is essential that councils, who now find themselves at the forefront of public health, grasp the opportunity to reconnect planning and health and so improve the wellbeing of both people and places.

Almost two-thirds of adults and one-third of children in England are either overweight or obese; there is a similar picture across the UK. Obesity is a major risk factor for a number of diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease. It can also affect people’s self-esteem and their underlying mental health. Reducing obesity, especially for children, is a priority for Public Health England (PHE) and health agencies across the UK. The causes of rapid increases in the levels of obesity are complex, and the influence of the environment in which people live is one of the factors.

Local authority planners have a key role in creating places that enable people to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. But they cannot do this on their own: planners must work closely with public health practitioners as well as other built and natural environment professionals, elected members and communities.

Reuniting public health with planning goes back to the very origins of the planning movement. Planners, allied to their public health colleagues, were spectacularly successful in improving the health of the population over the course of the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th.  Planning transformed the lives of millions of people in the UK who previously would have died an early death from an infectious disease due to, or exacerbated by, poor housing, sanitation or food, or lack of access to good medical care.

However, in recent decades the planning profession – like many others – has overlooked the contribution it could make to solving the new health challenges of the 21st century: the rise of the so-called non-communicable or ‘lifestyle’ diseases.

It has become increasingly clear that a number of current public health priorities, such as cardiovascular diseases, stroke, respiratory diseases, and mental and physical health, have a significant spatial dimension. Air pollution, a lack of good-quality green spaces, isolated neighbourhoods and poor access, and unsafe environments – to name a few – are all recognised as factors that have an impact on our health.

There is a great opportunity now for planning and public health professionals to combine – as they did over 100 years ago – to help to address these new public health challenges in ways that improve and enhance the public realm. The transfer of public health teams to local authorities in April 2013 has reunited public health practitioners with the wider levers of change that are located in local government, such as housing, education, regeneration, planning, transport, environmental health, and parks and leisure. This has created an appetite for exploring how the built environment professions can help to improve the public’s health.

That is why the Town and Country Planning Association, with support from Public Health England and local authorities across the country, has produced Planning Healthy-Weight Environments, a practical resource for practitioners to use when working together to enable the creation of healthy-weight environments through the English planning system. This resource draws on current evidence and practical experience, and will help practitioners to identify common ground for ongoing collaboration on this agenda.

Through better collaboration with public health practitioners, planning can encourage active travel, improve access to green open spaces, help people to feel connected and safe in their neighbourhoods, and support people to eat more healthily. These are not just practical opportunities to enable a particular course of action; they are also strategic opportunities to build a shared ambition, across local communities, to take control of one of the biggest health risks that our nation faces.

It is essential that councils, who now find themselves at the forefront of public health, grasp this agenda and reconnect planning and health to improve the wellbeing of both people and places.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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