The NHS and Public Health England are backing the creation of new housing developments that use interventions such as quality green space to improve public health. The health bodies said quality environmental design will be a "core part" of the solution to obesity.
On Tuesday 1 March head of NHS England Dr Simon Stevens announced plans to create 10 NHS-supported "healthy new towns" across the country. Safe and appealing green spaces, dementiaand age-friendly streets and public realm, and adventure playgrounds incorporated into children's walking routes are among the options to be tested at the sites.
Well-linked neighbourhoods will also encourage intermingling of different age groups, reducing social isolation and strengthening communities. The NHS will draw on the expertise of policymakers, designers, behavioural experts and international leaders in healthy built environments to help support the projects, which cover more than 76,000 new homes.
The plan is part of the NHS strategy to prevent ill-health and avert more costly treatment of diseases such as diabetes, which threaten to bankrupt the health system.
Stevens said the UK's need for housing is a "golden opportunity" to promote health and the NHS would "kick ourselves if in 10 years' time we look back having missed the opportunity to 'design out' the obesogenic environment and 'design in' health and well-being".
Crucially, the developments are pilot programmes that will be used as blueprints that can then be rolled out in new housing developments across the country.
While ample research has proven that green space and quality public realm are essential for health and well-being, the evidence is not often given due weight in town planning decisions. But the top-down recognition from the NHS of the importance of public space and design, and its willingness to test and monitor the healthy town models for effectiveness, could signal a step-change in this regard.
Horticulture industry representatives have been pushing for the health benefits of horticulture and green infrastructure to be recognised more widely - among them the Landscape Institute, the RHS and The Parks Alliance. The Ornamentals Round Table, which includes the HTA and the RHS, is pushing for a "health and horticulture" conference to be held this year, while The Parks Alliance has been calling for parks to be recognised as a "natural health service".
Among the sites chosen as healthy new towns is Barking Riverside, London's largest brownfield site, where 10,800 new homes are planned. Barking will apply the latest health and social care research to the built environment, and work with academics to "create new knowledge on the contribution of green spaces and waterways to improving health and reducing health inequalities - and embedding this into planning policy".
Multifunctional green spaces
In Ebbsfleet Garden City a clinical commissioning group is leading the Healthy New Town project that will provide "an attractive environment that promotes active and sustainable healthy living", including "multifunctional green spaces, high-quality leisure facilities and healthy eating venues ... alongside active transport links, integrated cycle paths and walking routes". Both Barking and Ebbsfleet will apply dementia-friendly design to the built environment and public spaces.
At Eco-Bicester in Oxfordshire, a 6,000-home development will include 40 per cent green space with walking and cycle networks as well as opportunities to grow food locally. Elsewhere, at Cranbrook in Devon, the healthy new town approach will look at how prevention and healthy lifestyles can be taught from a young age in schools, including through parks, allotment and home gardening as well as a forest school.
Professor Kevin Fenton, Public Health England's national director for health and well-being, said: "Some of the UK's most pressing health challenges - such as obesity, mental health issues, physical inactivity and the needs of an ageing population - can all be influenced by the quality of our built and natural environment.
"The considerate design of spaces and places is critical to promote good health. This innovative programme will inform our thinking and planning of everyday environments to improve health for generations to come."
On Tuesday the Town & Country Planning Association also released a report into design and health, outlining a new Public Health England partnership that will help councils reduce obesity through planning and design.
Novel Ways to Tackle Obesity & Create Healthy Environments outlines how forward-thinking public health policy experts and planners in councils across the country are using the planning system to improve health by promoting active travel, encouraging access to green spaces and enabling food growing. The report calls on local authorities to make it easy to walk and cycle in urban areas, make open spaces and parks safe, accessible and high-quality, and make sure houses have outdoor space for children's play.
It also follows the February release of the Lords' national policy for the built environment committee report, the culmination of months of gathering evidence from across the construction, planning and landscape industries. That report calls on Government to reverse its "short-sighted" quantity- focused approach to housing and ensure the planning system also creates good places for people. It outlines the effects of poor-quality environments on everything from biodiversity and climate resilience to health and social cohesion.
The committee called on the Government to promote green infrastructure and on local authorities to make health a central focus of planning decisions and appoint a built environment champion who can co-ordinate policy across Government departments.