Planning for Health – How Did we Do?

Apex Planning for Health

A report 10 years ago stated that including green spaces in planning proposals could have a positive impact on public health…so what changes have been made?

RIBA City Health Check

No one has told the weather yet, but spring has officially arrived, and as the days get longer, and the sun – hopefully – comes out, most of us look forward to getting out more and being more active. Having access to green space locally makes this so much easier – avoiding car journeys and encouraging us all to spend more time outside.

And this isn’t just rhetoric – a 2014 report from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) showed that there is a direct link between population health, housing density in urban areas and the amount of green space.

The report – City Health Check – looked at the nine most populous cities in England and, using data on childhood obesity, diabetes and physical activity, showed how important green spaces can be in urban areas.

Cities with the worst records on public health included Birmingham (with the lowest number of physically active adults) and Liverpool, which scored highly for diabetes rates and childhood obesity, whilst Bristol had the best record for diabetes and obesity, and Leeds adults are the most active.

The results also pinpointed specific local authority areas showing that where housing density is greatest, and green space less, adults are less likely to be physically active – such as Sandwell in Birmingham, Gateshead in Newcastle and Brent in London.

And yet within those same cities, areas that enjoyed greater green space had better health records. For example, Birmingham’s Solihull with 69% green space had the lowest levels of childhood obesity of any of the local authority areas included in the study.

RIBA’s president, Stephen Hodder, pointed out that making public health a priority when planning cities could save the country upwards of £1bn annually through reduced obesity-related healthcare costs.

The report emphasised that urban designers and architects have a major role to play in creating ‘environments to support walking’, regardless of green space available. Safe walking routes between green spaces was one suggestion, while parks can benefit from more bins and benches, improved walkways and lowering high walls or thick vegetation to let light in.

Relatively small changes that could make a huge difference – but how has the planning world changed over those 10 years to take this into account?

2024 Healthy Planning Update

Most recently, a new requirement that came into full effect this month, under Schedule 7A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (as inserted by Schedule 14 of the Environment Act 2021), requires developers to increase biodiversity by a minimum 10% as part of most proposals for development (save for a few exceptions) – which in effect means creating more green spaces. However, the aim of these sites is to ensure the provision of better wildlife habitat rather than spaces for humans.

This change in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 requires developers to ensure that the habitat for wildlife is in a better state than it was before they began their development. If this can’t be achieved on-site, they must create a wildlife habitat off-site.

This will hopefully encourage greener neighbourhoods that will be nicer places to live and work.

Another proposal four years ago came up in a government white paper entitled Planning for the Future, which looked at overhauling the planning system. The White Paper sets out plans for creating not only ‘beautiful’ developments but also sustainable ones that protect and enhance the existing environment.

The aim is to create developments, along with the local community, that would not only feature beautiful buildings, but also consider incorporating gardens, parks and green spaces and facilities that will create real communities, not just housing estates. Paul Smith, Director at Apex Planning Consultancy, was recently invited to attend a workshop: Branching Out – new routes to valuing urban treescapes, at The Open University, where in addition to himself, there were other professionals and local residents, who all shared their experiences and opinions relating to trees, landscaped and open spaces. It was evident to Paul how important the quality and also the management of these areas are to residents, with a key issue being their value 20+ years after a development is completed.

Following publication of the Planning White Paper Planning for the Future. the government looked to make changes to the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) that would ensure more of an emphasis on beauty and placemaking within proposed developments.

Also, in response to Living With Beauty, a report from Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, a revised national design code laid out requirements for streets lined with trees, and a focus on building types, facades, and character of streets.

The new code also requires new development to include ‘a network of high-quality open spaces and opportunities for sport and physical activity’, and to encourage walking and cycling.’

All changes that were highlighted as being desirable in the report from 10 years ago. Whether all the principles are being adhered to and will actually result in the nation’s improved health remains to be seen…

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