Issue date: 21 February 2003

ISSUE DATE: 21/02/03

Pedestrian-unfriendly environments and the closure of local facilities could result in inactivity and obesity, posing a long-term threat to children’s health. These points were made at the launch of the first comprehensive guide for developing healthy settlements, written by researchers from the University of the West of England. Launching the guide, environmental campaigner Jonathan Porritt called for planners to put public health and sustainability at the heart of development control.

“We never seem to learn from our mistakes,” he said. “Here we are, with a huge amount of knowledge and experience about what makes for sustainable communities, still pouring good money after bad in terms of unsustainable housing, unsustainable business parks, and unsustainable regeneration schemes. Since 1990, local authorities have had a power to promote the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the communities they represent. But unless planners start to put public health and sustainability absolutely at the heart of development control, using more collaborative and inclusive consultation and decision-making processes, then people's well-being will always play second fiddle to short-term unsustainable economic growth."

The book is timely, given the government’s plans for new development in the already congested south-east. It results from a four-year research project into healthy cities led by the University of the West of England, and offers practical advice for all those involved in developing both rural towns and regenerating urban neighbourhoods.

Called Shaping Neighbourhoods, the book advocates standards for services such as schools, health centres and parks, and commercial developments like shops, bars and offices, so that the choice of walking or cycling is open to residents in the interests of health and emission reduction.

“Towns have evolved in the late 20th century to facilitate the use of the car,” said Hugh Barton, of UWE’s Faculty of the Built Environment, who led the research. “Even now, when the government is ostensibly promoting public transport, the way that settlements evolve reflects drivers’ interests, and bus routes are tacked on afterwards.”

According to Hugh, in order to make public transport viable and attractive, new settlements have to be planned from a different starting point. He emphasises that diversity is essential in order that new towns or townships are successful. “This requires strong action from planning authorities – towns should include diversity of social groups (based on age as well as income); diversity of use; choice of transport and choice of local facilities.”

The book, says Hugh, offers detailed advice on how to balance all the competing demands of developers, local authorities, the community itself, and government policy. “Our approach defines three key levels of planning and design. The first level is the ‘homepatch’ – the area immediately around home – and research showed that people’s sense of wellbeing and security is profoundly affected by the character and friendliness of this. The neighbourhood is the next level, typically consisting of between 2 – 5,000 people, which may suffer from local facilities closing and a ‘dormitory’ character. The third level, ‘townships’ equate to a market town of 10,000 or an urban district of 20,000, where there is sufficient demand to support a full range of local services.”

The book Shaping Neighbourhoods is a production of the ‘Sustainable Settlements’ research programme, run by the World Health Organisation (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Healthy Cities and Urban Policy, based at UWE.


Editor’s notes

1. Shaping Neighbourhoods is published by SPON Press. It is co-authored by Hugh Barton, Marcus Grant and Richard Guise. It was launched at the Town and Country Association on 19 February 2003. It is available spiral bound (ISBN 0415260094 at £27.50) or in hard back (ISBN 041527852X at £65.00).
2. Funding for Shaping Neighbourhoods was supported by trust funds and commercial sponsorship.
3. Jonathon Porritt is Programme Director of Forum for the Future.

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