Reuniting health and planning in the context of NHS Healthy New Towns

UWE Bristol, through the ESRC-funded project Reuniting Planning and Health: Tackling the Implementation Gaps in Evidence, Governance and Knowledge, has been organising a series of expert seminars exploring the intersection between public health and urban planning to improve how local communities can become more liveable spaces for all through good design. The latest event, held on 6 July 2017 at the Wellcome Collection, focused on the contribution of the NHS England Healthy New Towns programme. Mark Drane, a principal and architect at IBI Group and a doctoral researcher at UWE Bristol’s WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments, outlines some of the key findings from the discussions and the wider implications for planning in the UK.

Leading thinkers and practitioners from across the UK came together to share the latest evidence for links between health and the physical environment and debate how the evidence can be practically put to use. The event at the Wellcome Collection in London was the latest in a series of ESRC funded seminars led by the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments at UWE Bristol looking at how health and planning disciplines can be reunited.

The topic has risen up the agenda in recent years and was the subject of a special edition of the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA) Journal. The event was dedicated to considering the issue in the context of NHS England’s Healthy New Towns programme and NHS England, with several of the Demonstrator Sites represented, as was the NHS England programme team.

Theme 1 chaired by Professor Thomas Fischer, Liverpool University looked at translating the academic evidence base into practice-friendly healthy urban design principles. Andre Pinto was able to announce the publication of a significant ‘review of reviews’ by Public Health England summarised under the topics of Neighbourhood Design | Housing | Healthier Foods | Natural and Sustainable development | Transport. This is a valuable resource and the full report provides valuable information for practitioners and also helps to chart the direction of future research.

Dr Stephanie Wilkie from Sunderland University shared ongoing research into the evidence for beneficial public health outcomes in new urbanist communities. Dr Laurence Carmichael and Dr Karen Lock of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine also contributed to this debate.

Theme 2 chaired by Professor Tim Townshend of Newcastle University considered developing planning policies and tools for healthy outcomes. Rachel Toms shared the Design Council’s vision for the future and an ongoing project on “What stops us making healthier places” to understand why design professionals, planners, and others aren’t just getting on and implementing all this good guidance and evidence. Look out for that report later in 2017. The benefits and limitations of Health Impact Assessments (HIA) and other tools were discussed and Adam Sheppard of UWE Bristol was able to highlight yet further challenges for planning departments of getting the health agenda into policies and into practice.

Alongside the planning system, the role of public sector land holdings was emphasised in discussion as having a strong role in supporting measures to ensure that, when sold, there is a requirement to ensure it supports health and wellbeing to minimise the impact of development on the NHS. Therefore measures of the overall value of a site need considered and not just its balance sheet value.

Reflecting on this event it is clear that there is much good work on creating healthy places in both academia and practice. Indeed many contributors went out of their way to emphasise that they were both researchers and practitioners seeing the two as intertwined. A significant gap between evidence base and practice remains in practice, however, and this remains a challenge for the future.

For IBI Group, working with partners including the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments at UWE Bristol, the challenge will continue as outlined in the past, including in 2005 by Frank Duffy, unless “the catalytic but contrasted contributions of Design imagination and Research methodology are forced to work together to achieve benefits for practice, for users and clients and for cumulative development of knowledge.” IBI’s approach to this is in part through an in-house R&D programme, IBI TH!NK, that actively seeks opportunities to translate evidence into practice.

Programmes like NHS Healthy New Towns can provide a beacon of hope and innovative examples for industry, but the NHS cannot work with every developer. That doesn’t however stop the costs associated with ill health resulting from poorly designed environments falling on the NHS and other public services. A wider move is needed within the development, planning, and design industry to respond to this challenge.

For IBI as support partners to Phase 1 of the Healthy New Towns Programme and working with the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments, this event is an opportunity to contribute to the debate about healthy communities and continue to develop our own vision as a technology driven design practice at the forefront of evidence based design.