Urban designers must take the lead to ensure healthier cities says RIBA


Birmingham had the least physically active adults

The link between design, urbanism, and public health is under renewed scrutiny. Last year, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) launched a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) and the Clinton Global Initiative to look at ways urban design can address US public health challenges. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has now published exclusive research which reveals the clear link between land use and public health in English cities. ‘City Health Check – How Design Can Save Lives and Money’ compared the nine most populated cities in England – Birmingham, Bristol,  Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield – and Birmingham and Liverpool were found to be the worst cities for health.

The new report, compared three major health issues; diabetes, obesity in children, and physical activity, and found that taxpayers could save nearly £1bn a year if people could be encouraged to walk more each week. Discovering that 75 per cent of people in the top English cities do not meet their recommended levels of exercise, the report argues that England’s obesity epidemic could be eased if cities and towns invested in better public spaces and green infrastructure.

The healthiest local authorities in English cities have almost half the housing density and a fifth more green space than the least healthy ones. Birmingham and Liverpool are the worst cities for health: the former has the least physically active adults and highest number of adults with diabetes and the latter has the most obese children.

Adults in Leeds are the most active out of the nine largest English cities; Bristol can boast the lowest number of adults with diabetes and obese children.

The worst performing local authorities with the least physically active adults (parts of Birmingham, London and Newcastle) have twice the housing density and 20% less green space than the best performing local authorities (parts of London, Sheffield, Manchester & Newcastle).

The research, which was carried out for RIBA by YouGov asked residents how much exercise they took each week and what would increase the amount of brisk walking they do. Across the nine cities 59 per cent of people reported not meeting recommended levels of exercise; 75 per cent of people who do not do enough exercise could be convinced to walk more each week whilst 25 per cent of all respondents said nothing could change their decision not to walk.

The most common changes that people said would encourage them to walk more often were: if pathways were designed to be safer (24%) and parks and green spaces were more attractive (23%). This shows that it is the quality, not quantity of streets and parks that will encourage people in English cities to walk more.

In 2013 responsibility for public health was handed over from central Government to local authorities across England; the change of responsibility raises the possibility that real changes could be applied at a local level to improve public health.

The RIBA is using the report to call on local authorities to integrate public health and planning policies and to have a truly joined up approach to improve their city’s health.

RIBA President Stephen Hodder said: “At a time of austerity and increased concern with physical and mental wellbeing, it’s shocking to discover that just by making public health a priority when planning cities, we can save the country upwards of £1bn annually though reduced obesity-related healthcare costs.

“With responsibility for public healthcare devolved now from central Government to local authorities, it’s vital that planners and developers take the lead and ensure healthier cities.”

To read the full report and the recommendations made by RIBA to decision makers at local and national levels go to: www.architecture.com/CityHealthCheck