Wellcome Trust funds research into healthy urban development

Issue date: 17 September 2015


An international academic consortium has been awarded major funding from the Wellcome Trust to identify the factors that will help our cities to thrive against the challenging backdrop of an escalating global population, depleting resources and serious health and environmental concerns.

The three year project is led by the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) in partnership with urban planning and research consultancy, Daniel Black and Associates (db+a), and the University of Bath, with support from the University of Washington and United Nations University.

By 2050 the planet will need to support nine billion people, the majority of whom will be living in urban areas. Availability and access to essential resources, including food and water, is reducing, while incidence of extreme weather events and trends in non-communicable diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardio-vascular and respiratory illness, are increasing. Evidence of this confluence of pressures suggests that global health is under serious threat. As a result, health and resilience are emerging as major concerns across multiple sectors and disciplines, and in particular for those working in improving the places where we live and our use of resources.

Funded under the Wellcome Trust's prestigious new initiative, Our Planet, Our Health, the project will be split in to two main activities.

The first, led by economist, Alistair Hunt, from the University of Bath, will value in economic terms the health costs and benefits of high quality and low quality urban environments, both now and in the future, taking into account multiple health indicators including those predicted from climate change. Alistair will work closely with db+a and UWE to achieve this, and will be supported by Kristi Ebi from the University of Washington, USA, a globally recognised expert in the health impacts of climate change.

This ambitious work will be guided by a panel of leading experts in health and economics.

The second, led by db+a in partnership with UWE colleagues (Judy Orme, Laurence Carmichael, Paul Pilkington, Gabriel Scally and Ben Williams) will explore with influential delivery agencies the barriers and opportunities to enabling the creation of healthy urban environments. This research will start to reveal the type of people, agencies, decision tools, policies and legislation that are needed for healthy places to start thriving. As with the first phase of activity, this second phase will be supported by panels of experts in urban development, policy and impact. Professor Roderick Lawrence, Invited Professor at the United Nations University and a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Swiss Academy of Sciences Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Network, will be advising on methods of interdisciplinarity and co-creation.

A number of partnering research collaborators have already expressed a strong interest in working with the consortium on this project, including: Greater Manchester, a major city authority in North West England, which has recently taken over responsibility of the city region's £6bn health budget; Compendium Living, a large social housing and regeneration company based in Liverpool; Cherwell District Council, the local authority responsible for Bicester Eco-Town/Garden City and the UK's largest custom-build project; Redrow Homes, a major volume house-builder; and Exeter City Council, which has been pioneering the cost comparable delivery of Passivhaus in the UK. The Urban Land Institute, who are currently facilitating discussion in this area through their Building Healthy Places Initiative worldwide, are providing the consortium with links to their member organisations, including: Argent LLP, the developer responsible for the regeneration of King's Cross in London; British Land, known for Broadgate and Regent's Place; and HafenCity Hamburg GmbH, the largest regeneration project in Europe.

Daniel Black, Director of db+a and Project Director, says, “The relationship between our urban habitats and health is undeniably complex, but there is growing evidence to suggest that the links are there, both direct and indirect. It's also clear that current and potential future health costs are not being factored in to current decision-making. By using economic valuation we can start to get a sense of the scale of the associated health costs. If significant, this evidence could open doors to conversations at strategic level, and actions following these conversations could help rebalance our system of urban development planning and delivery so that the creation of healthy urban environments makes sound business sense as well as common sense.”

Judy Orme, Professor of Public Health and Sustainability at UWE Bristol, says, “Building health into urban planning at the developmental stage has the potential to have a very positive impact on many aspects of population health. The multidisciplinary team is delighted to have won this prestigious funding and believes the research could impact on such public health issues as obesity, mental health, physical activity and food growing.”

Gabriel Scally, Visiting Professor and former Director of the WHO Centre at UWE Bristol, says, “This is a hugely important and timely piece of work. I look forward to linking this research to policy making at the highest level.”

Jim Longhurst, Assistant Vice-Chancellor: Environment and Sustainability at UWE Bristol, says, “The University of the West of England is extremely proud of having secured this funding from Wellcome Trust. It is recognition of the huge value that our World Health Organisation Centre for Healthy Urban Environments has been producing quietly over the last decade and more.”

Roderick Lawrence, Visiting Professor at the International Institute for Global Health at the United Nations University, says, “This example of transdisciplinary inquiry to address real world concerns can apply the concept of co-benefit to integrate health promotion into the early stages of urban planning programmes and specific projects.”

Dr Alistair Hunt, from the University of Bath's Department of Economics, says, “My role will be to evaluate the economic costs of the health impacts of urban development so that, in future, they may be factored in to development design and so encourage more healthy developments.”

Alex Notay, Policy Director of ULI UK says, “This exciting research proposal has the potential to provide much-needed evidence to real estate and urban development professionals involved in creating the places of the future. The focus on practical application as well as policy is deeply resonant with our members, particularly its focus on upstream decision-making and the health training of built environment practitioners. Our Building Healthy Places initiative has already demonstrated the vital role that our industry has in influencing public health through sustainable development and place-making. We look forward to exploring this further with the UWE team.”

The project will start in early 2016 and run for three years.

Notes

Project Title: Moving health and sustainability upstream into strategic urban development decision-making

Project No.: 106857/Z/15/Z

Duration: 1 February 2016 to 31 January 2019

The proposal was supported by a number of organisations including BioRegional and the Prince's Foundation, with whom we look forward to working over the coming years.

Daniel Black & Associates (db+a) is an urban planning and research consultancy that specialises in developing and providing innovative new ways of enabling healthy and resilient urban environments.

Roderick Lawrence is currently Visiting Professor at the International Institute for Global Health at the United Nations University.

Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health by supporting bright minds in science, the humanities and social sciences, and public engagement.

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