The recent announcement of NHS England "backing" ten new housing developments of various scales is something we can inevitably clap for, particularly for being an initiative that brings together from the design stage developers, planning, and public health officers. The range of demonstrative sites is quite diverse, from the 393 units in Bicester to more than 10,000 units in a large brownfield site along river Thames in London, Barking Riverside.
The initiative would probably built upon a large amount of evidence gathered in recent years about the correlation between health and several aspects of urban form and land uses. Without falling into the trap of environmental determinism, it is undeniable that the built environment has an impact on behaviour. If you have a well sorted corner shop at walking distance there are chances you shop there more frequently than driving your car to a supermarket everytime you need a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread. Banning fast food outlets in the neighbourhood would probably be a less effective measure if at the end you can always call a home delivery service. Consumption patterns are largely the outcome of a consumerist society and healthy food habits (and food poverty) not only depends on physical factors but also on financial and social determinants.
In my view for laudable the initiative can be, it sounds a bit like "back to the future". We should not forget that the knowledge about how to design "healthy" places not only is at the very roots of town planning in the XIX century, it is also well illustrated by good design practices in Europe over the last few decades. And it is also well documented in the urban design guidances produced by CABE or in recent urban design manuals.
None of these recipes alone however would actually tackle the underlying issues of inequality and of poor health which is often a visible outcome of the former. In terms of healthy town planning and urban design we know what we have to do, and we can support better design and development decisions on a burgeoning body of evidence. The risk is however to follow some "best practice" examples like Hammarby in Stockholm, where the project failed to deliver its original social objectives. The neigbourhood would probably tick most of the "healthy" town boxes as suggested by NHS England, but resulted in a socially homogeneous environment with housing prices on average higher than in surrounding areas.
Back to the UK and to make a quite complex topic short, it is in the lack of political will to problematize and counteract neo - liberal forces, not only in housing provision and urban development but also in the unrestrained consumerism and correspondent patterns of everyday life, what mainly made our cities so unhealthy.
Some of the UK’s most pressing health challenges – such as obesity, mental health issues, physical inactivity and the needs of an ageing population – can all be influenced by the quality of our built and natural environment. The considerate design of spaces and places is critical to promote good health. This innovative programme will inform our thinking and planning of everyday environments to improve health for generations to come.