Physical and mental health of urban dwellers could be significantly improved by rethinking transport design

Taking a new approach to designing city streets and other transport infrastructure could make a significant impact on improving public physical and mental health, a report by Arup, BRE, University College London and AREA Research has shown.

The study, Health + Mobility: A design protocol for mobilising healthy living, provides civic leaders, city planners and architects with a guidance protocol that can be applied in any urban setting. This is aimed at helping cities identify the health issues that can be influenced by taking a more holistic approach to transport design.

The research team of public health specialists and built environment professionals found something as simple as the design of streets, pathways and networks could have a significant impact on encourage walking, cycling and other physical activities.

The Liverpool Knowledge Quarter in the UK and the Baton Rouge Health District in the US were chosen to test the transport design protocol in a real life setting.  It’s application to the Liverpool site  highlighted a range of measures that could be implemented to improve underlying health issues in the area. This included reducing the amount of wide and busy roads through to efficient transport planning and road layout changes and creating more attractive pedestrian and cycling networks. These changes could facilitate better street life, improve air quality and encourage people to be more physically active. Through these proposed interventions the Liverpool Knowledge Quarter has the potential to help the wider city of Liverpool move towards a healthier environment.

The report’s guidance comes as the NHS is placing increasing emphasis on wellbeing and prevention to help relieve pressure on its services. The numbers of people suffering chronic diseases, such as stroke, asthma and diabetes, are increasing, posing significant cost burdens on the NHS. The cost of treating diabetes-related conditions alone in the UK was £10 billion in 2011-2012.

Helen Pineo, associate director for cities at BRE and one of the authors of the guidance, said: “The challenges are so great that they cannot be resolved by health services alone. Planners and designers all have a part to play in promoting health and wellbeing in our cities, and this protocol gives them the tools to create healthier places, without requiring a knowledge of the specialist language of the health sector.”

Other project partners said:

Paul Grover, associate director at Arup and contributor to the research said:

“What is really unique about this research is the coming together of healthcare experts and built environment specialists to find practical measures that will help reduce preventable diseases and improve mental health. Often health measures are focused on an individual but there are measures that cities can implement to promote and support health and wellbeing.”

Lydia Collis, Associate at Perkins+Will and affiliate of AREA Research, said:

“With this framework, our goal is to help decision makers solve practical issues and enable them to move towards more health-supportive environments. It has been proven that the design of our cities can have a significant impact on our way of life and our health, which needs to be considered when planning the built environment, including infrastructure and transportation. With rapidly increasing rates of preventable diseases such as obesity and diabetes, the conversation is now more important than ever and we hope that this report sparks a change in how we approach these issues in order to help keep people healthy.”

Professor Nick Tyler from University College London Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering’s Centre for Transport Studies said:

“The way we move around the built environment can affect our health in a variety of ways – physically, sensorially and psychologically. By designing the environment to give positive health outcomes we can make a huge difference to people’s quality of life and healthcare needs.”

The report, Health + Mobility: A design protocol for mobilising healthy living, is available now and is free to download here.