One only has to pick up the paper, listen to the radio or turn on the television to hear about the latest pressures facing the NHS. This week the focus has been a challenge from Theresa May to GP practices threatening income should they not move to provide extended hours in the thought that this will reduce the demand on overstretched acute accident and emergency services. I'm not going to wade directly into this complex debate but it has got me thinking about the significant role planning can and should play. The places we live, work and play in shape our feelings, our behaviour and our community. Planning has the power to provoke people to live healthier and more socially connected lives.
How do problems manifest?
1. Inactive lives
We know that we should be active, we know that we should do the recommended 150 minutes of activity per week. However, we are a nation of commuters. Our modern transport options be them cars, trains or planes have given us access to labour markets within a far wider radius. We can build residential estates, out of town centres or dispersed amenities in the knowledge that people can drive to get to them. A recent poll by public transport app Moovit suggests that the average commute is now 49 minutes each way. This means people are regularly spending near to two hours, five days a week travelling. Once they get to work the picture does not improve with so many desk based, the sitting continues. It begins to be easy to see how so many people are living sedentary lives. Anyone who has joined the 'digital pedometer' craze living the type of life I've described above, myself included, will recognise the challenge of reaching the default target of 10,000 steps per day. The result of these sedentary lives of course is a major contributor to the public health demand referred to above. It doesn't have to be like this, planning can provoke us to become more active in how we live our daily lives between where we live, work and play.
So how can planning help? We can look at places like Copenhagen where for example the most popular choice of commute is by bike and even in the Danish winter 90% of those who cycle in the summer continue through the winter. This is in part down to culture but it also has a lot to do with designing in activity. We can be more creative in how we can increase population density in attractive ways reducing the temptation of endless dispersal through urban expansion. It's not all about planning either. Local government, through strong leadership, can change the norm. For example in Bogota the then Mayor Penalosa, in his own self-styled war on the car, pushed through a policy of closing major roads on a Sunday so that people could come out and cycle, walk and play on what normally were major highways and roads clogged with cars. Naturally business and residents were sceptical. However 20 years on Ciclovia, as it is called, still takes place every Sunday with over 60 km roads closed and the people spill out to cycle, walk and socialise.
2. Disconnected lives
Social connectedness and having someone you know and can rely upon are important factors in individual and community resilience. According to the market research firm Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone globally is growing fast, rising from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011 - an increase of around 80% in 15 years. In the UK, 34% of households have one person living in them. A 2014 Age UK study of 6,500 UK men and women aged over 52 found that being isolated from family and friends was linked with a 26% higher death risk over seven years. The way we live is resulting in more people being more isolated, especially into older age. We know that people who have others to rely on place less demand on the NHS and council social care. Planning has the ability to influence how we live and can make significant positive difference from subtle changes that provoke social connectedness to deliberate design that promotes more connected living.
Planners can influence social connectedness on many levels from the simple and temporary to fundamental place design. For example from the place making learning of Jan Gehl, New York took the decision to close Time Square to cars and today it is a hive of social connectivity. Communities and Councils can do this at a local scale using place making techniques. For example placing a few temporary tables and chairs at very little cost can bring people out, get them talking and connecting. Equally well planned public spaces, interesting walking and cycling routes and shared facilities can make the difference between isolation and inclusion.
How often do we see a list of things that are not allowed such as 'Don't walk on the grass, 'Don't swim here, Don't Skateboard and No Ball Games? If we plan ahead for multiple uses we can provoke social interaction. The opposite is also true.
In conclusion I'm left wondering, do we as planners have sufficiently front of mind how we can help to make the places we live, work and play places that help to make us happy and healthy and in doing so helping our colleagues in the NHS.
Anna Rose, President 2016/17