Why are we still talking about healthy places?

In recent years, there has been a wide ranging debate across the housing, planning, health and infrastructure sectors about the development of healthy places in both regeneration and newly approved projects.

In 2016, Town and Country Planning Journal published an article on building health and wellbeing into the built environment (Town and Country Planning, Vol 85 No 11 Nov 2016, Knowledge Exchange customers can login to view the article here) In 2017 and 2018 the talk was all about healthy towns initiatives, and a Design Council report in 2018 looked at the relationship between healthy placemaking and the impact on our communities. In 2019 the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA) called on members to “reunite” health and planning

It is clear that everyone involved in placemaking agrees building places that promote health and wellbeing for all is of vital importance to our communities, The Covid-19 pandemic brought this into sharp focus, and the idea remains at the forefront of design policy, particularly in urban city contexts. But, over four years after the initial conversations and thought pieces, why are we still talking about it, and what actions still need to be taken to integrate the idea of a healthy place into planning to the extent that it just becomes the norm in the planning and design of our places?

Preventing avoidable disease

The phrase ‘healthy placemaking’ has been defined by Design Council as: “Tackling preventable disease by shaping the built environment so that healthy activities and experiences are integral to people’s everyday lives”.

Public Health England defined healthy placemaking as: “Placemaking that takes into consideration neighbourhood design (such as increasing walking and cycling), improved quality of housing, access to healthier food, conservation of, and access to natural and sustainable environments, and improved transport and connectivity”

Research has shown preventable diseases linked to lifestyle and environment are among the most significant threats to public health. Lifestyle-related conditions like heart disease and cancer, as well as being health problems in their own right, can also contribute to the development of other chronic conditions, exacerbate symptoms and create complications with care which are costly to the NHS.

Creating healthy spaces is not just about encouraging people to live more active lifestyles by facilitating active travel and improving the environment around buildings, although this is a significant part of it. “Healthy places” include approaches to improve air quality, reduce loneliness, allow people to age well in place, promote mental as well as physical wellbeing, reduce deprivation and inequality through projects like housing, infrastructure development, and high street regeneration.

Healthy places also have a preventative role to play in public health management, not just a health improvement role; such interventions are essential to help avert the onset of disease, improve people’s quality of life and reduce health inequalities. And evidence shows the return on investment from public health interventions is high and creates value of different kinds – economic, social and personal.

In short people who live in healthy places, tend to live healthier lives, place less strain on services and “contribute” more to society, both economically through work or spending and socially through community engagement.

Victoria Park, Belfast. Image: Fiona Ann Paterson

Enabling planning practitioners to think about creating healthy places

Research published in 2020 by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) explored local, national and international planning practices that enable the creation and delivery of healthy places. While a lot of research draws attention to the barriers to building healthy places – including a lack of funding, different requirements from developers and conflicting policy priorities – the RTPI report instead sought to identify important challenges faced by planners who try to integrate healthy placemaking principles in their decisions and then offer potential solutions to these in practice. Key themes emerging from the report include a need to improve collaboration, knowledge sharing and the skills of planners.

The report provides case studies looking at: the place standard tool; the livewell development accreditation; connecting communities in Tower Hamlets; health planning in South Worcestershire; and train station district rejuvenation in Grasse, France. It also identifies seven steps to plan for healthier environments

Across the sector there have been calls for planners to be allowed to be innovative, creative and take a “visionary” approach to planning to help make places healthier in order to address the convergence of challenges around public health, the climate emergency, and economic recovery from Covid-19.

How has the coronavirus pandemic changed how we think about healthy spaces?

The lockdowns  imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have thrown the importance of quality space into sharp focus. Places that facilitate health and wellbeing among the people who live there, and places where the indoor living quality is as important as the outdoor space have become incredibly important.

The pandemic has highlighted what it really means to have a healthy space. It has also demonstrated how wider socioeconomic deprivation and inequality – linked to living conditions as well as other factors – is having an impact on infection and hospital admission rates, with those groups who live in more deprived areas being found to be at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill or being admitted to hospital with Covid-19. 

The 2018 Design council report found in its survey of practitioners that focus was given far more to outdoor space than to indoors, as it was easier and more cost effective to make changes that could produce demonstrable impacts (an increase in cycling, for example). But the pandemic and the increased time we have been forced to spend indoors has encouraged designers and urban planners to think even more creatively about quality space in their developments.

Where now?

Public Health England (PHE) which for many years was a strong voice in the conversations around healthy placemaking has been disbanded and will be replaced by a National Institute of Health Protection. It remains to be seen how, or if this new organisation will fit into the conversation going forward. But reflecting on recent reports on the significant public health crisis facing the UK in the long term, it is clear that the work must continue, driven collectively by those in planning, urban design and public health.


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Maggie’s Centres: wellness through building design and the environment

In March 2017, the 20th Maggie’s Centre was opened in the grounds of Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Falkirk. Designed by architects Garbers & James, it is expected to receive 3000 visits in the first year.

Maggies Centre Forth Valley, Garbers and James

Maggie’s provides free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their family and friends, following the ideas about cancer care originally laid out by Maggie Keswick Jencks and co-founded by her husband Charles, who is a landscape architect. Among Maggie’s beliefs about cancer treatment was the importance of environment to a person dealing with cancer.

She talked about the need for “thoughtful lighting, a view out to trees, birds and sky,” and the opportunity “to relax and talk away from home cares”. She talked about the need for a welcoming, reassuring space, as well as a place for privacy, where someone can take in information at their own pace. This is what Maggie’s centres today aspire to.

A number of high profile architects have designed Maggie’s Centres across the UK – from the late Zaha Hadid to Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers and Rem Koolhaas.

The Maggie’s Centre in Kirkcaldy, Zaha Hadid Architects

Promoting wellbeing through the natural environment and effective design

Drawing on research which considers the significant impact that environment can have on wellbeing, Maggie’s Centres are designed to be warm and communal, while at the same time being stimulating and inspiring. The interiors are comfortable and home-like. Landscape designers and architects are encouraged to work closely together from the beginning of a project as the interplay between outside and inside space, the built and the “natural” environment, is seen as an important one.

A building, while not wholly capable of curing illness, can act as “a secondary therapy”, encouraging wellness, rehabilitation and inspiring strength from those who move around it.”

Each of the centres incorporates an open kitchenette where patients can gather for a cup of tea, airy sitting rooms with access to gardens and other landscape features, and bountiful views. There are also private rooms for one-on-one consultations; here Maggie’s staff can advise patients on a range of issues relating to their condition, whether that is dietary planning, discussing treatment options (in a non-clinical setting) or delivering classes such as yoga.

Spaces to promote mental wellbeing as well as physical healing

Maggie’s Centres are also about offering spaces to people to help improve their mental wellbeing. As well as quiet tranquil spaces for reflection and meditation, there are also central areas, focused on encouraging the creation of a community between the people who use the centre. Wide-open spaces, high ceilings and large windows, with lots of opportunities to view the outside landscaping and allow natural light to enter are a key feature of many of the Maggie’s Centres.

The locations also try as far as possible to provide a space free from noise and air pollution, while remaining close enough to oncology treatment centres to provide a localised base for the entire treatment plan of patients.

Fresh air, low levels of noise and exposure to sunlight and the natural environment, as well as designs that provide spaces that promote communal interaction to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, have all been shown to improve mental as well as physical wellbeing. In this way, the physical attributes and design of the Maggie’s buildings are helping to promote mental as well as physical wellbeing of patients and supplement the care being given by the cancer treatment centres located nearby.

Interior of the Maggie’s Centre in Manchester, Foster and Partners

Award-winning architecture and design

In 2017 Maggie’s Manchester was shortlisted for the Architects’ Journal Building of the Year award. And many of the individual centres have won regional design awards for their innovative use of space and incorporation of the natural environment into their designs.

A Maggie’s garden was also featured at the 2017 Chelsea Flower show, highlighting the importance of environment, and the role of the natural environment in rehabilitation and promoting wellness among those who are ill.

Final thoughts

How design and landscape can aid and empower patients is central to Maggie’s Centres. They are a prime example of how people can be encouraged to live and feel well through the design of buildings and the integration of the surrounding natural environment. These environments are the result of a complex set of natural and manmade factors, which interact with one another to promote a sense of wellness, strength and rehabilitation.

They demonstrate how the built environment can contribute to a holistic package of care – care for the whole person, not just their medical condition. Other health and social care providers can learn from them in terms of supporting the wellbeing of patients, carers and their families.


You can find out more about Maggie’s Centres though their website.

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