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10/02/2021

Pandemic reminds us of planning’s capacity to influence wellbeing

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Covid-19 has ruthlessly exposed health inequalities relating to place. Planners have the tools to address these, argues Michael Chang

Covid-19 has shown that public health issues do not happen in isolation from the wider societal and environmental context, in what The Lancet characterised as a ‘syndemic’.

Public Health England’s research has highlighted inequalities in the burden of Covid-19 illness falling hardest on those who are obese and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups.

Another Covid-19 report highlighted the health and productivity gap in the Northern Powerhouse attributable to restricted opportunities to be healthy in childhood, because of lower-quality nutrition, poor air quality and substandard housing.

The pandemic has made planners reflect that what they do fundamentally affects people’s health and wellbeing. It has accelerated a simmering evolution where the practice of integrating health considerations into spatial planning is becoming institutionalised in national and local authorities.

We now need to use the evidence we already have to shape decisions in plan-making and development management in the best interest of people’s physical and mental wellbeing.

“Planners and public health professionals must better understand each other’s priorities”

There is no one solution to tackle such complex syndemic issues. But there is a realisation that planners (across all sectors and roles in the system) and public health professionals must better understand each other’s priorities, vested interests and responsibilities.

The PHE Healthy Places programme, with its wealth of resources, is supporting local actions even as PHE prepares to transition to a new entity.

To see meaningful reductions in physical and mental health risk factors associated with how places are planned, planners and public health professionals now need to consider how to get research into practice:

1. Activate ‘proportional universalism’, whereby the health needs of the whole population are addressed through strategic policies while adopting targeted localised policies at a scale proportional to areas with specific needs.

2. Better translate evidence into concrete decisions on health in plan-making and development management processes, and monitor the outcomes.

3. Maximise use of local powers  to drive change including increasing the coverage of health impact assessments.

4. Upskill the professional workforce through improved CPD training on key competencies needed to achieve a healthier society.

Michael Chang is Public Health England’s programme manager for planning and health

Image credit | Shutterstock

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