The everyday actions of architects and urban planners influence the everyday physical activity of people by creating the networks of streets and public spaces through which people move. Similarly, inside buildings, the layout of space influences the degree to which people move around.
The precise mechanisms through which spatial patterns influence behaviour patterns are increasingly well understood by the academic community. Physical connections are key: well-located pedestrian crossings, cycle lanes, bridges over rivers and canals, simple and direct routes through housing areas and town centres. Well-located shops and public buildings are key: within walking and cycling distance. Good quality paving matters, as does good lighting.
Nevertheless, this scientific knowledge is not yet part of everyday practice. Some of these findings run counter to accepted planning practice, not least transport planning practice.
Nor is the connection between planning/design on one hand and physical civility/health on the other embedded in practice. The world of architectural and urban planning practice is heavily silo-ed. Health outcomes are not a priority for architects and planners.
Instead, priorities are:
- economic regeneration/employment creation
- safety from crime and the fear of crime
- heritage protection
- cultural development.
Significant public and private sector funds are being devoted to the achievement of these priorities.
Positive health outcomes are an “easy fit” into this list since the physical and spatial measures required to deliver them are entirely compatible with those to deliver the others. And, most importantly, compatible budgets exist that can be aligned with.
Health policymakers and practitioners should engage with built environment policymakers and practitioners to align health outcome targets with social, economic and environmental targets. Work to create healthy behaviour change in the general population should not be left to frontline health practitioners in GP surgeries and health centres alone. Instead, it should be distributed within a broader network that includes built environment practitioners.
An approach from the health sector should be welcomed by the majority of planners and architects since it will give them another argument to press for change that they already wish to create for other, compatible reasons. And for which funding is already being directed.
On the other hand, there is likely to be resistance from a large body of entrenched transport planning policymakers and practitioners, which has pursued a roads-first agenda for many decades. This has prioritised vehicle traffic over pedestrian and cycle modes of transport. It has permitted considerable out-of-town development, to the detriment of town centre economic and social life and to the detriment of health.
A side note
Architectural and urban planning practice is generally evidence-weak when it comes to the consideration of human behaviour. Much practice is based on experience and anecdote. This is perhaps the principal reason that much architectural and urban practice has failed: witness the failed post-war housing estates and the economically under performing New Towns programme.
The evidence-rich culture of health practitioners would bring a breath of fresh air/stimulus/professional prod to built environment professionals.
The built environment of tomorrow will be more connected for pedestrians and cyclists with pedestrian crossings and cycle lanes being normal, not exceptional. Town centres will all be 20mph areas because lower speeds are significantly safer. Vehicle traffic will be permitted because cars at the right speeds keep streets safe with the natural surveillance that they provide.
Vehicles will move at lower top speeds but not necessarily more slowly overall because, counterintuitively, traffic flows more smoothly through junctions when it approaches them more slowly. Most road signs and road markings will have been taken away from these junctions, simultaneously making streets more attractive and traffic more likely to move at slower speeds. And reducing carbon emissions too.
The impact on everyday pedestrian and cycling use will be immense, with consequently significant impacts on physical behaviour and beneficial health outcomes.
At the same time, local economies will flourish and, with them, local social networks, civic society and cultural growth.
This change will have been more rapid than anyone thought because, once political leadership has swung to support it, the budgets to create these kinds of small-scale infrastructure projects are considerably lower than other traditional, large-scale infrastructure projects.
Likewise, the take up by local businesses and residents will be rapid and enthusiastic since these measures will resonate with common sense.
This will be the opposite of death by a thousand cuts. It will be life by a thousand connections.