Design has a role in helping communities to be healthy

Urban planning and public health are historically entwined - the emergence of modern planning in the nineteenth century was a response to unsanitary conditions in growing industrial cities, and environmental factors continue to be recognised as determinants of health.

Applying the WHO definition of health, a state of mental, physical and social well-being rather than just the absence of disease, draws out the wide span of the relationship between physical design and the health of communities.

The built environment can have a direct physical influence on health, through its impact on the quality of the environment, air or water. For example the use of ecological building materials can eliminate toxic substances linked to health problems like asthma, while sub-standard, energy-inefficient housing can lead to fuel poverty and health problems related to cold or damp. The role of sustainable design in reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change also has wide implications for health.

Read more about Sustaining a Healthy Future

The importance of physical activity in combating obesity, diabetes and heart disease and promoting mental health is now well recognised. Building Health a report of the National Heart Forum, Living Streets and CABE, identified that design, through strategic and urban planning, transport policy, provision of green space and playing space can encourage physical activity to be part of daily life. The role of transport and green space in wellbeing and mental health is recognised, together with their impact on resilience and social contact. The influence of the physical environment on social and behavioural drivers of health, such as social networks and interactions, and human emotional and stress responses is also now recognised.

Harlow Gateway Project

Harlow Gateway Project is a 27 acre site that will provide 750 much-needed new homes in the town.

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Guidance from The Royal Town Planning Institute has also laid out the ways that planning can contribute to health outcomes. Recommendations consider social capitalGlossary: the networks and trust between people that help a community work together towards shared objectives (discussed above) and environmental quality, and reinforce the need for mixed use development, accessible services and transport infrastructure which combat segregation and enable sustainable lifestyles. The guidance also looks beyond this to address the ways that planning can influence health inequalities between socio economic groups. This influence is felt in differential access to housing, employment opportunities and facilities, with a knock on effect on well being.

Commentators have noted that the links between urban environments and health outcomes argue for stronger integration between spatial planning and public health, and stress the need to overcome the challenges of institutional integration and to join up policy responses to these insights.