The places we live in affect our physical and mental health. Air pollution from vehicle emissions has created toxic conditions for many town and city dwellers leading to a rise in respiratory diseases including asthma.
Obesity, due to unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles, has resulted in a huge rise in cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and several forms of cancer avoidable diseases. Loneliness and social isolation are creating misery for many. These issues and the complex interrelationship between health and environment are explored by JTP founder director, Fred London, in his recently published book, Healthy Placemaking.
Six inter-related principles for healthy placemaking, that stem from his research, now underpin JTP’s approach to masterplanning and design. Compact mixed use urban structures that minimise the need to travel by car; streets that make walking and cycling pleasant and safe; parks, play facilities, gardens and allotments that improve our quality of life; are all features of the environments we should be planning to enable future generations to thrive.
To achieve healthy placemaking we need joined up strategic planning which is unfortunately missing from the Whiter Paper. The proposed six stage process for developing Local Plans does not recognise the need to pro-actively plan for sustainable transport infrastructure in tandem with new homes, employment opportunities and community infrastructure. National and sub regional strategies are needed to provide a framework that targets investment for sustainable transport to rebalance the economy and ensure the North/South prosperity divide with its associated health inequality is reduced.
The White Paper proposals are radical in many ways, but not radical enough in seeking alternatives to the Local Plan ‘call for sites’ process which has resulted in unsustainable forms of development on land with poor access to facilities leading to the proliferation of car dependent communities with high carbon emissions. Sustainable masterplanning – including forward thinking sustainable transport planning that accelerates a shift to modes of travel that significantly reduce carbon emissions, car use and car ownership – is vital if we are to create places healthier places.
Local Plans should be developed using a proactive planning approach starting with analysis of the place followed by co-designing a shared vision for each town and its rural hinterland with the communities that live there. A systematic study of existing urban areas should be undertaken beforehand to establish their capacity to accommodate new homes. Where capacity within the urban area is insufficient this should be followed by strategic planning for how the number of homes in an area could be increased in a sustainable, attractive, and functional way to meet the needs of the growing population. Scenarios including sustainable urban extensions, new settlements, or a combination of both should be assessed with the involvement of local communities to agree the best approach.
The principle of the 15-minute neighbourhood should underpin planning within all areas. Residents of a neighbourhood should be able to access the six basic social functions: living, working, supplying, caring, learning, and enjoying within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their home. This requires neighbourhood planning to ensure access to education, work, shopping, recreation, community meeting places, health facilities, public transport, exercise, and good nutrition.
The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) recommends exploring a process review to ‘consider which process changes could reduce the adversarial consequences of the current approach, reduce the resource-pressure on local authorities and better encourage ‘the right growth in the right place’. We fully support this initiative and believe a comprehensive review of this part of the plan-making process is necessary.
One option suggested by BBBBC is that ‘….landowners and developers might be able to fund local authorities to run a strategic planning exercise to plan for the most appropriate areas for future growth, based on predicted housing numbers. As part of this process, landowners and developers could be encouraged to put forward representations on specific sites with commitments against place standards and mixed-use, specified by the local authority, to give an objective and equitable assessment process that would level the playing field before a housing allocation is granted’.
It is also concerning that Local Authorities would be required to borrow to fund community infrastructure until developers sold or rented homes when the Infrastructure Levy would become payable. This could leave communities without local facilities for many years if local authorities were unable to unwilling to forward fund them.
Within neighbourhoods, streets need to be designed to support healthy lifestyles by slowing vehicle speeds, encouraging active travel, including trees and other natural features, and promoting sociability. Unfortunately designs that achieve these aims are frequently prevented from being constructed due to highways department maintenance preferences. The intention to make guidance in a revised Manual for Streets compulsory through the NPPF and the proposal to appoint chief officers responsible for placemaking, who could require highways departments to adopt and maintain such streets, are two very positive aspects of the reforms which together should help deliver healthier places.
- Introduce sub regional planning spatial plans.
- Link strategic growth to sustainable transport infrastructure planning.
- Reconsider the ‘call for sites’ stage within the Local Plan making process.
- Ensure highways authorities buy into healthy placemaking and have sufficient budgets to maintain streets designed in accordance with Manual for Streets.