The ‘healthy towns’ initiative is welcome, but there will be challenges along the way

Neil Orpwood

The NHS has announced partnering with built environment professionals to help deliver their healthy new towns programme. This is not a new idea for many social and healthcare architects who, for some time, have believed it could be a mutually beneficial solution to what appears to be the growth of an increasingly unhealthy society, and already use similar principles to create holistic healing environments in healthcare buildings.

A strategic partnership between the NHS and housing developers to actively encourage communities to consider alternative healthier lifestyles could help alleviate a society with ‘wellbeing problems’ and provide more attractive development opportunities as well as better environments. However, for this collaborative approach to succeed there are numerous considerations that need to be addressed to ensure that the healthy blueprint is adhered to and supported as the key driver.

The principle obstacle is how to align the individual aims of both parties. The developer’s agenda is different to that of the publicly funded health service. Compromise on both sides will be vital, but the NHS will also need to help drive design specifications that promote healthy living, are flexible for the future and work across all levels of society, with partners that have an appreciation of how to integrate these elements into attractive and value-driven developments. A robust consultation process will be key to ensuring the NHS’ priorities are included early in the design process of any development and/or masterplan.

The majority of today’s homes are designed on a formulaic concept that no longer applies to how we live as individuals, families and groups

There will be a need for many partners; a big aspect of the NHS plans is to promote fast food-free zones, but this will be ineffective without the right education to support it and may actually encourage a converse reaction to what the NHS is trying to achieve. Restricting fast food outlet locations will not only make them more desirable but actually encourage people to get into their cars to reach one. This removes the emphasis on walking, as well as adding to local traffic and pollution. Instead, what we need is a strong education programme which educates children on nutrition and healthy lifestyles from an early age.

The majority of today’s homes are designed on a formulaic concept that no longer applies to how we live as individuals, families and groups. The most important change in design that should lead the new housing model is to be able to provide for people of all ages, which is currently not the case. Houses need to accommodate multiple types of inhabitants such as the growing family, the increasing number of single, home-ownership, and the ageing population. For example, a home that incorporates a downstairs shower and toilet can help people to stay in their home whatever the future brings; a direct result of this is the strengthening of communities with increased consistency in the people who live there.

A building’s future and role within a community is vital but it does not need to be at the expense of appearance; investors will want to make sure that function and form do not forgo a development’s ability to attract the right people. New developments provide more design opportunities than, for example, the existing housing estates, which were designed before health and wellbeing were considered a priority. Poorly positioned buildings, with ill-conceived, isolated public spaces and limited natural light opportunities will be expensive to redevelop and redesign, so developers will be attracted to the new sites. We need to make sure that the existing is not overlooked but instead the different priorities for new and existing sites are carefully assessed.

The NHS initiative is a step in the right direction; and although good design and development are important, we won’t solve all society’s ills through these alone. If executed with good intentions from the very outset, we can provide a platform for more healthy lifestyles, but there needs to be education in the classrooms and emphasis on the government agendas to make changes that are truly integrated into how we live.

Neil Orpwood is associate director at HLM