CEDAR PhD student Anna Le Gouais outlines the findings of research on the opportunities and challenges in creating neighbourhoods that encourage physical activity and promote health.
This piece was originally published in the October 2019 issue of The Journal of the Town and Country Planning Association. www.tcpa.org.uk
Our environments can influence how much everyday physical activity we do. For decades our transport networks have been designed primarily around the needs of private cars. The result has been more car use, leading to congestion, pollution and more time for people to be sedentary. So if we want more people to walk and cycle, we need to design places that make it easy and attractive to do just that.
This means creating high-quality pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and open spaces. This isn’t just about making our towns and cities more pleasant: physical inactivity increases the risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer, mental health problems, musculoskeletal conditions and premature death. In the UK over a third of men and almost half of women are not active enough for good health, and as many as one in six deaths may be attributable to insufficient physical activity.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and Local Plans are generally supportive of walking and cycling infrastructure and open spaces (‘active living infrastructure’). In practice, however, what is actually constructed may be less conducive to physical activity than what policies aspire to.
I conducted research to understand more about the challenges and opportunities in designing and building active living infrastructure in new communities in England by interviewing 40 key stakeholders in three local planning authority areas. This involved semi-structured interviews with officers and councillors in local government covering urban planning, transport planning, public health, and the environment, as well as interviews with private sector developers involved in large developments of thousands of new homes in the study areas.
If we want more people to walk and cycle, we need to design places that make it easy and attractive to do just that.”
Influencing the design of active living infrastructure
I found that a number of factors were likely to affect both the decision to build active living infrastructure, and its delivered quality:
- Public health practitioners dedicated to urban planning can enable the delivery of healthier places. Two of the three study areas had public health practitioners with dedicated urban planning roles. In such leadership and collaborative roles, they were able to share knowledge about the health benefits of good place-making, and stakeholders reported that they could inspire non-health colleagues to consider health in their practice. This role can increase the likelihood of healthier designs that support physical activity in communities.
- Collaboration is vital to achieving positive outcomes across sectors. Public health practitioners can support collaboration across sectors, particularly with urban and transport planning, to create mutual benefits across outcomes including air quality, noise, flooding, biodiversity, congestion, social cohesion, crime, and house prices. This may be particularly useful if, for example, traffic-related issues are of a higher local priority than physical activity, in which case demonstrating benefits in terms of congestion, air quality and car parking may form an important part of the argument for supporting walking and cycling.
- Impacts on profit can help to persuade developers. Encouraging and supporting master-developers may be crucial: they were seen to be more likely than housebuilders to value active living infrastructure because they had a longer-term perspective for their sites than housebuilders, who were more focused on short-term profit; and they recognised that investing in green spaces could raise house prices. Walking and cycling infrastructure may be more challenging as it may be considered likely to influence prices only in areas with existing high levels of walking and cycling. However, developers may use health arguments for walking and cycling to argue against building more roads, which are expensive and could impact on profits.
- Guidance material and contextually relevant examples are important. Urban planners, developers and public health practitioners use guidance such as Sport England’s Active Design principles (pdf) and guidance from Public Health England and the
TCPA (pdf). However, case studies may not always persuade councillors if local conditions are very different from those presented. This is especially true where austerity has made councillors reluctant to try new things for fear of wasting resources, particularly in areas with low rates of walking and cycling in which active living infrastructure may be seen as a threat to car-driving or housebuilding. A lack of contextually relevant examples can also make it difficult for public health practitioners and developers to know what to promote. Urban planners can also struggle to get time to learn about best practice, despite an enthusiasm for learning.
- More monitoring is required to demonstrate need. Local data are used in needs assessments – for example childhood obesity data may be used to support investment in parks. However, a lack of monitoring makes it difficult to demonstrate particular needs and support business cases, and this could lead to a downward spiral in quality and use.
- Worst-case traffic scenarios can be self-fulfilling. Some master-developers and private sector transport planners were frustrated by the difficulty in accessing research evidence on the impacts of active living infrastructure, because the available data tend to come from car-oriented designs. This lack of suitable data makes it more likely that ‘worst-case’ scenarios of traffic are modelled and mitigated for, and may thereby become self-fulfilling. Transport assessments tend to be predominantly traffic assessments. Public transport and active travel therefore tend to receive a much smaller proportion of time and resources, making it difficult to prioritise these modes through designs.
- Local planning policies should clarify requirements. Local Plan policies are important in supporting healthy developments, but wording tends to be vague and without defined minimum standards. Local policy may even restrict the potential for healthy designs. For example, specifying a minimum number of car parking spaces per dwelling can result in lower quality and quantities of active living infrastructure. A lack of national minimum standards, particularly for cycling infrastructure, can make it difficult to ensure high quality outputs. National planning policies that prioritise quantity of housebuilding over quality can restrict the opportunity to ensure good placemaking and active living infrastructure. Clearly defined policies provide a framework for developers, who cannot be expected to provide more than that defined in local policy. However, there is a risk of ‘tick-box’ approaches based on quantity of outputs rather than quality of outcomes, resulting in ineffective designs.
- It is important to engage with the right people from the start. Public health practitioners, greenspace stakeholders and cycling groups can all help to support better designs, but they need to be involved in planning discussions as early as possible to enable changes to be made. With under-resourced urban planners this is less likely to happen, to the detriment of the final design. Once the formal consultation stage is reached, there is little further opportunity to influence designs.
- Active living infrastructure designs are too often watered down. Active living infrastructure may be affected by designs that appear to be of high quality in principle, but are actually unachievable due to cost, terrain, or enforcement issues. Safety auditors can reduce the quality of walking and cycling routes by raising road safety concerns which may be considered to be over-cautious, restricting the ease of flow for cyclists and pedestrians in favour of traffic flows. Walking and cycling routes are often built last in a development for cost reasons, but this can reduce use of these routes since people are more likely to get into travel habits when they first move.
- The economic arguments for active living infrastructure have little apparent relevance to local authorities. Physical inactivity is estimated to cost the UK £7.4 billion each year, including £0.9 billion to the NHS. Since local government budgets are not related to NHS resources or other economic costs such as sickness absences, many councillors were reportedly not concerned with the long-term health and productivity savings of physical activity. Cost-benefit analysis is also difficult to use in the planning system because it is the total financial contribution from developers that is negotiated, with multiple competing demands on that money.
Walking and cycling routes are often built last in a development for cost reasons, but this can reduce use of these routes since people are more likely to get into travel habits when they first move.”
Priority areas in supporting active living infrastructure
Three priority areas in supporting the creation of active living infrastructure were identified by the stakeholders interviewed:
- Influential individuals, such as public health practitioners:
‘When you’ve got passionate people who are committed to achieving a positive change in communities, it makes a real difference, and it doesn’t take a lot; it just takes a few people and they can have that ripple effect … in terms of improving longer-term public health outcomes.’ – Local government urban planner.
- Explicit policies in urban planning, transport and the environment:
‘If you’re going to say that you want to shift the mode of travel to cycling and walking and have a real dramatic change, you’ve got to have a dramatic policy change to enable that to happen.’ – Public health practitioner.
- Adequate resources to support collaboration, learning and monitoring:
‘Sometimes [the planning team] get so bombarded with all the applications coming through they don’t really have the time to sit down and do all the pre-app meetings and bring in everyone that needs to be.’ – Public health practitioner.
- A Le Gouais, L Foley, D Ogilvie and C Guell: ‘Decision-making for active living infrastructure in new communities: a qualitative study in England’. Journal of Public Health, 2019. DOI: 10.1093/pubmed/fdz105