How urban planning can pave the way for better living
The state of our cities will determine the health and well-being of most of the world’s population as we move forward. With the rise of chronic non-communicable diseases and increasing rates of obesity, we face an urban health crisis.
Planning in the broadest sense can play a crucial role in creating environments which enhance people’s lives. If well-planned, however, cities can not only prevent many unhealthy outcomes, but also promote better well-being, quality of life, and opportunities for everyone.
The urban environment is a highly complex interactive socio-physical system, with competing expectations and priorities. To date, considerations of health and well-being have had insufficient influence on urban design and planning. Creating healthier cities requires new approaches to planning, giving greater prominence to health, as well as recognition of a range of health-based objectives, including opportunities for healthy lifestyles.
The achievement of physical, mental, and social well-being should ideally become a central goal of plans governing land use, transport, open space, housing, and economic development in cities.
The challenge, both for planning and public health, is to learn from each other and combine best practices.
Green and natural spaces are vital for physical, mental, and social well-being. Good practices in promoting green areas for health should be encouraged. However, to achieve maximum impact, initiatives to promote physical activity should be embedded in a supportive and congenial physical environment.
Air pollution, noise, exposure to indoor and outdoor chemical and biological pollutants, and unfavourable housing conditions continue to have serious public health impacts in cities. Health risks in many locations are also associated with inadequate supply and quality of water, poor sanitation conditions, and poor waste management.
There is a need to plan comprehensively for healthier cities. Improved planning for open space, biodiversity, and sustainable urban transport will all bring opportunities for carbon minimization, physical exercise, and healthier living.
With air quality, there is a need for greater monitoring of conditions within urban areas with a view to preparing local action strategies, including the designation of low emission zones in those locations where human health is particularly at risk.
Unused urban land should be assessed for possible contamination with a view to remedial action where necessary. Existing landfill sites should be monitored to ensure that human health is properly safeguarded.
New landfill sites (if needed) should be designed and managed to the highest standards possible. Noise emissions and conflicts should be assessed as a regular element in citywide planning, with appropriate strategies devised to tackle noise at its source.
Health in the city can be improved and enhanced by choosing climate-friendly construction material, reducing external and internal noise impacts, adopting safe and benign construction material and techniques, encouraging natural light and natural ventilation in buildings, and advocating better communication between builders, users, planners, tenants, politicians, and owners.
Education designed to improve public understanding of the relationship between climate, construction, and community well-being will help people accept responsibility for ownership of their environment and their health.
Personal identity, ownership of space, and well-being are conditions which have a close relationship to variety in accommodation and the construction of dwellings. Regional variations in building style and form help to promote ownership and neighbourhood loyalty with a flow-on to improved health. New models of ownership might help to save our complex environment and our health.
As key criteria for healthy urban living conditions are progressively investigated and established, the built environment can be improved accordingly by ensuring that those criteria are fed into the urban planning process.
Urban plans are key determinants of the shape of human settlements, the health and well-being of the inhabitants, and urban socio-economic conditions generally. It follows that planning decisions can systematically take account of the influence of the urban environment on human health.
Urban planning practice can therefore be regarded as a central determinant of environmental health. Because cities are human creations as well as human habitats, human health is a central (if often un-stated) value in urban planning and governance.
Urban planning priorities will therefore include both the enhancement of the quality of urban life and the provision of facilities and resources, which can protect and enhance our health.
Tanvir Ahmad is an urban planner.