Built environment professionals are increasingly interested in the relationship between places and health. Many guidance documents are available to inform planning policy-makers of the importance of planning and health, yet there remains uncertainty about exactly ‘what works’ with regard to specific design and policy measures. In part, this has been explained by a lack of clear causal evidence to inform practice. However competing policy priorities and differing cultures of practice and evidence use across health and planning also play a role.
Despite these challenges, there is a growing desire to integrate design and planning measures which are known to support health and wellbeing into policies and projects. Planners want to know what has worked elsewhere and what evidence can be used to support local policies.
The research focused on three key health themes in Southwark and Lambeth which are widely relevant in the UK and internationally: social isolation, obesity (physical activity/healthy eating) and access to health services. Like many aspects of the urban environment impact on health, there are many interconnections across these topic areas. The findings from academic research, consultation activities and policy examples often do not correspond to separate policy domains because of these overlaps. This is particularly notable with two of the focus areas for this review, social isolation and physical activity, which are both influenced by similar characteristics of the urban environment. In some ways this is an advantage because policies can have multiple co-benefits. For example, increasing walkability through urban design may improve physical activity, increase social engagement and reduce local carbon emissions.
Planning policies alone will not address complex health issues like social isolation and obesity. As is often the case in urban planning and public health, officers will need to work across departments in the council and with other public and private stakeholders to integrate built environment solutions with other health promotion measures. Furthermore, solutions from one neighbourhood or research study may not be applicable more widely, depending on local context. There is great value in engaging local communities to explore their views of local problems and assets. This can ensure that policies and design measures respond to local needs, resulting in better outcomes.