The research into the relationship between green infrastructure and human health is well advanced, and across the world, Healthy Cities initiatives have been implemented and local/municipal authorities across Europe, North America, and beyond are applying green infrastructure to deliver added value and save costs related to health care. It is now more widely accepted that Urban Planners have a role to play in ensuring that schemes brought forward make the most effective use of strategic green infrastructure and LID/SuDs. The health and well-being outcomes for the future residents who will live and work in new developments should be enhanced. In the National Planning Policy Framework, the link between green infrastructure and health is made explicit, as:
“Access to high quality open spaces and opportunities for sport and recreation can make an important contribution to the health and well-being of communities.”
UK National Planning Policy Framework
In the US and UK particularly, Health Impact Assessments are gradually becoming part of both Developers’ and Planners’ toolkits to ensure that adequate attention is paid to the role green infrastructure plays in improving the long-term health of citizens. A Health Impact Assessment (HIA) has been defined as a combination of procedures, methods and tools by which a policy, program or project may be judged as to its potential, and the distribution of those effects within a population. It should:
- Ensure that health and health disparities are considered in decision making
- Engage stakeholders in the process
This is supported by the findings of the Marmot Review report Fair Society, Healthy Lives (2010), which makes clear that:
“green infrastructure networks can potentially reduce urban temperatures and improve drainage, reducing the risks to health associated with heat waves and flooding. Well designed and maintained green spaces can encourage social interaction, exercise, play, and contact with nature. Well designed, car-free and pleasant streets encourage feelings of well-being…”
Fair Society, Healthy Lives
In addition to assessing the health implications, the HIA also produces recommendations as to how the positive outcomes for health can be enhanced and how the negative consequences can be mitigated. It should predict both the overall consequences for a population but also the distribution of health impacts.
Green infrastructure and its connection to health can be loosely classified in the following way:
- Proving opportunity for, and encouraging regular physical activity
- Improving air quality in and around developments
- Reducing the causes of stress which can lead to serious, long-term mental health issues
If a potential scheme is judged by the Healthy Urban Development Unit (HUDU), there includes a comprehensive section of the toolkit that addresses open space and access to nature. Developed in 2013 by the National Health Service London, HUDU is now widely known as an effective rapid health impact assessment tool across a number of local authority areas throughout the UK.
The advantages and flexibility of undertaking an HIA is that it provides an opportunity to assess the impact of development at a local level, whilst still considering the relation between a particular scheme and the wider environment. Green infrastructure is embedded within the approach.
The provision of adequate and accessible green space is related to the following wider determinants of health:
- Permeability and attractiveness of the development to provide a sense of community
- Opportunities for natural play
- Dementia and Age Friendly environments
- Improved green networks to encourage more physical activity on a daily basis
- Using green infrastructure and LID/SuDs to mitigate against the impacts of air and noise pollution and to create more healthy, resilient communities of the future
The Green Infrastructure North West Valuation Toolkit, provides a useful resource for those out there who want to interrogate further the connection between integrated green infrastructure and the effects on the wellbeing and productivity of citizens:
Whilst these various toolkits are available to assess the potential impact of a scheme and to scope the opportunities for integrating nature based solutions, we still have some way to go to ensure that planning for health using urban trees, LID/SuDs and other forms of ‘constructed ecosystems’ becomes the norm for local authorities around the world. Having worked with many municipalities in the past, it seems that some areas don’t make full use of the HIA as a means of getting more from Developers and demanding the highest quality, multifunctional green space that they could. Whilst it is laudable that the National Health Service England, and other government health administrations internationally, have launched programs like the Healthy New Towns initiative, there is a real danger, judging by some of the schemes GreenBlue Urban have consulted on, that this opportunity might be squandered and that green infrastructure might again become relegated to a lesser position in the hierarchy of design considerations when planning these healthy new communities.
At GreenBlue Urban, we have the in-house expertise to work with local authorities to scope out the opportunities for integrated green and blue infrastructure to increase the potential of urban trees and creative LID/SuDs schemes to deliver those essential health outcomes. From our earlier work with Transport for London at Blackheath, to our regeneration projects in areas as diverse as the Olympic Park, to the Chicago Riverwalk, we are passionate about creating healthy communities. Our cost-effective and maintenance-free solutions can enable Developers to meet those essential requirements to ensure that when it comes to heath impact, they can use mature tree planting and water management in the most effective way to produce aesthetic, more energy efficient, permeable developments that transform a mere site into a healthy community for the future.