Active by design | Rachel Toms

Annual Congress X – Health, Happiness & Wellbeing

Rachel Toms – Active by Design Programme Leader, Cabe at Design Council

Rachel talked about health and safety and risk – one of her favourite topics.

We need to work to integrate health in everyday life by building good environments and preventing disease. There is a growing body of scientific studies which highlight this need to combine it with professional judgement. But where can we draw evidence?

Physical activity, healthy food, contact with elders and positive social contacts show evidence to improved physical and mental health. We need to apply those functions to existing spaces. How would this look? Walkability is definitely a feature neighbourhoods must have if they are to promote healthy life. Place-making needs to look through the eyes of health. Through increased physical activities, 70% of preventable diseases could be reduced. People need on average 100-200 minutes a week of exercise in order to battle inactivity. However, the greatest benefits are observed when people increase their activity from 0 minutes to 100 – beyond this it is of incremental benefit. In other words, the smallest amount of activity can bring about much better overall health for everyone. This inevitably translates to great gains within other areas of society and the economy.

So how well are we doing? In 2001, the percentage of people travelling to work by foot in Birmingham was 8.8% and those travelling by bike was 1.4 %. In 2011, these percentage are respectively 9.5% and 1.4%. This is one of the smallest shifts in mode of transport form anywhere else I have presented. Safety is generally stopping people changing their mode of travel. Over 1km of distance travelled, on average 13 people are killed whilst driving, whilst 288 are killed travelling on foot and a staggering 646 travelling by bike. This is almost a factor of 50 times greater risk for bike riders compared with car drivers. If it is more dangerous to travel by bicycle than car, then we (as those who shape the built environment) are not doing a very good job. We need to start taking responsibility – we have the tools to prevent this issue becoming endemic. Coventry is a good example of this, having ‘humanised’ its city centre in the 1990s. Whilst it was considered to be a poor suburban environment, it has now been transformed into a place for people to be active outside. If we are to use such measures (walkability) when we design, then we can realise very early on the problems we might be building up in our environment.

City Park in heart of Bradford is a good starting point. People go there because it is more appealing than sitting at home and watching TV – they have fun. By creating the right conditions for people to interact we can start to change attitudes. Leicester’s public realm is another example that works to increase activity. The result is that people engage more, they use their bikes more, frail people feel more comfortable to go out as the provisions are there, and all sorts of people are able to interact with each other. The risks of ignoring health considerations when building the urban realm are big – for example the rising spending of the already unsustainable NHS. Some areas of potential change we can address better are transport and streets, housing, policies, indicators and requirements.

Words by Young Urbanists




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