Image courtesy: Anthony Charlton
The RIBA‘s recent report “City Health Check: How Design Can Save Lives and Money” looks at the relationship between city planning and public health, surveying the UK‘s 9 largest cities in a bid to improve public health and thereby save money for the National Health Service. The report includes useful information for city planners, such as the idea that in general, it is quality and not quantity of public space that is the biggest factor when it comes to encouraging people to walk instead of taking transport.
Arising in response to the Health and Social Care Act 2012 – which puts the responsibility of public health into the hands of local governments and challenges them to join public health with other policies such as housing – the report argues that if cities across the UK could follow their guidance, it could save the NHS £675 million a year and improve the quality of life millions of people who do not exercise enough. Furthermore they show a link between health and the balance of land use between housing and green space, with the healthiest cities having around three percent housing and over 70 percent green space, and the unhealthiest around six percent housing and under 50 percent green space.
In the Telegraph, Ellis Woodman argues that the timing of the report could not be better, catching a wave of public support for green spaces in urban environments fueled by the success of projects such as London‘s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and New York‘s High Line. He says “an investment in a green infrastructure project can very quickly pay for itself”, not just in terms of public health, but also in transforming the economic fortunes of some of the more run-down areas of the country.
Another beneficial aspect of the report is that it surveyed residents in each of the nine cities, asking what changes to public space would most encourage them to walk more; these results have been used to generate city-specific guidance. For example, while residents of Birmingham seemed particularly concerned about improving the appearance of their city, residents in Liverpool and Nottingham were much more focused on developing streets and parks that feel safer.
However, as much good as the report contains, there are equally worrying aspects: for example despite finding “a strong link” between health, green space and deprivation, it claims the aim of the report is to examine “how the design of our cities can help to ease – rather than exacerbate – the effects deprivation can have on health.” This sentence sadly seems to suggest that the report has no ambition to show how the design of our cities might ease the deprivation itself.
Given that the report does suggest a fairer distribution of funding for public health, that sentence may simply be unfortunately worded. But the much more worrying, and more persistent problem that appears in the report is a failure to distinguish between the density of land use and what might be called urban density. By repeatedly advocating for lower housing density and more green space in cities, one might very easily believe that they are effectively advocating for the health benefits of urban sprawl.
This idea goes against the received wisdom that higher urban density is the key to encouraging more active citizens, and that urban sprawl is one of the factors which helped to cause our society’s car dependency. We can assume that Birmingham – consistently one of the worst performers on health in the report – is roughly aligned with the report’s description of an unhealthy city with a housing density of around six percent; Bristol – consistently the highest performer – matches the description of a healthy city with around three percent housing. However, data shows that these two cities’ population densities are very similar. In other words both have roughly the same density of housing, but Bristol fits this onto half as much land – likely by using more high-rise housing than Birmingham’s rows of terraces. This is the difference between land use density and urban density and shows why, if interpreted a certain way, the RIBA’s report could do more harm than good.
What comes out of this more nuanced understanding of the report, though, could be its most intriguing result. A city consisting of high-density and high rise housing surrounded by green public parks should be familiar to architects – it is a description of Le Corbusier‘s ideas for the Plan Voisin and Radiant City. These ideas have been much criticised since they were (incorrectly) implemented to disastrous effect in cities in the post-war years. With this new data on public health offered by the RIBA’s report, perhaps now might be a good time to revisit the Corbusian city ideals and ask: are they really such a poor idea?
‘Reviewing RIBA’s City Health Report: Could Le Corbusier Have Been Right?’ by Rory Stott was first published at ArchDaily on 7 February 2014.