Healthy cities – Urban design and health choices – APL Health
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Healthy cities – Urban design and health choices

We may not give a second thought to our immediate environment, the shops and leisure options available to us, and the impact it may have on our health choices. However, how our towns and cities are designed can play a huge part in the health choices we make. Walking down the average high street for example, how many socially conscious green grocers can you spot? Many of our high streets are littered with fast food chains, their main focus being profit margins rather than optimum health outcomes.

Location, location, location

Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle used to be popular places outside of London for young professionals to relocate to. The draw being superior work opportunities and a better quality of life. However, the latest figures show many are choosing to make a more dramatic move and are relocating to cities in central Europe such as Berlin. In some cases, it is quite simple to comprehend such a move. A short walk down Schivelbeiner Straße in the heart of east Berlin for example, reveals an array of shops dedicated to both health and sustainable living. With cottage cafes ditching the synthetic sugar laden coffee syrups for a natural pinch of turmeric and black pepper, harnessing its potent anti-inflammatory benefits. All of which are accessible by either green public transport or safe cycling routes.

A global health initiative

Writing this off as simple trendy hipster culture may be one view. However, there is global push by the World Health Organisation, reinforced at their 2020 conference in Denmark, to seriously consider the part urban design has to play in the health choices we make. Although not a brand-new topic, the forward thinking ‘Healthy Cities’ movement puts the onus not only on our overloaded health care systems and us as individuals, but includes governments, councils and corporations.

The primary goal of the WHO European Healthy Cities Network is to put health high on the social, economic and political agenda of city governments. Health is the business of all sectors, and local governments are in a unique leadership position, with power to protect and promote their citizens’ health and well-being. WHO, 2018

Nearly three decades on, the initiative is gaining global momentum. Currently there are 14 cities in the UK part of the WHO Healthy Cities Network. They are Belfast, Brighton, Cardiff, Carlisle, Derry, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle , Preston, Sheffield , Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland and Swansea.

These cities are attempting to initiate change and improvement in the following health areas:

  • Providing caring and supportive communities for all citizens taking in to account our diverse cultures.
  • Providing conditions and opportunities that support healthy lifestyles.
  • Providing a well thought out urban design which promotes health, recreation and well-being, safety, social interaction, easy mobility, a sense of pride and cultural identity and that is accessible to the needs of all its citizens.

What if?

Giving our immediate environment a second thought, what if urban design was more health and wellbeing focussed in the UK, what kind of impact would this have on our day to day health? Would safe cycle routes promote easier engagement in exercise? Would green public transport improve the air quality and reduce instances of respiratory disease? Would minimising gambling and fast food shops help those with addiction? Would more green spaces promote better mental health through accessible eco-therapy and mindfulness? Would the re-emergence of organic green grocers promote social conscious questions of future sustainability from our children?

Is it a solution?

It has to be noted we are not going to see epic changes overnight. A spokesperson from Cardiff council summarised their issues eloquently and realistically;

“Like all cities, Cardiff has problems which the Council is keen to address…” “…It is shocking to note that the life expectancy of Cardiff’s residents can vary by as much as 11.6 years between the most deprived and most affluent parts of the city. Being part of the World Health Organisation’s Healthy Cities programme is about finding ways for us to address that and it is important for us to learn from the experience of others in identifying the best ways to do so.”

It’s a very interesting and debate worthy topic. Now in phase six, only time will tell how this concept is embraced in the future design of our UK cities. Next time you are out in your local town, why not reflect on its design and whether it promotes and encourages good health for you? In the meantime, watch this space for new developments from forerunners such as Wayne Hemingway and the next generation of socially conscious urban designers.

For more information on the UK Healthy Cities Network, click here.