Digital Book of Landscapes


Healthier Places to be

Simon Ward
CMLI Associate Director, Atkins

As a Landscape Architect and urban designer I understand that the environment is just one of many important tools in promoting and supporting healthy lifestyles and that diet, access to fresh, healthy food and our air quality are all massively important.

But exercise and activity and the role of our everyday environments cannot be under estimated and they make a huge but often unnoticed contribution in the battle against poor health. It is these spaces that are on the front line of a battle which can literally mean a matter of life or death. Wherever we can make modest investments to improve these spaces we help to save the millions that we spend on medical treatments and cures. As such it is our public spaces that are the real tools of preventative medicine and the ones we must employ more of.

Social prescribing is the new cure

  • The worlds cities are growing fast but so are its citizens.
  • Take your foot off the accelerator and on to the pavement
  • Burn calories not carbon
  • Get off your laptop and on to the blacktop
  • The latest drug on the street is the street
  • Pump the heart not the accelerator
  • Promote designs which require more effort to get around our cities not less
  • Green spaces are the natural antidotes for life
  • Keep moving, stay healthy
  • Parks are preventative medicine
  • Create more Youth movements
Figure 1: Forest Bathing

There`s nothing new about this movement for more movement and I`m starting with a place dear to my heart where I live. It’s the Mersey Valley nature reserve identified in a recent BBC poll as one of the Country`s hidden gems, tens of thousands of people live within a mile of it. Its a huge swathe of open green space backed by woodlands and containing riverside walks, meadows, wetlands and hedge tunnelled paths, home to England`s first canal of the industrial revolution and close enough to see the cluster of new high rise buildings in Manchester. Its home to Owls, Kingfishers, Herons, birds of prey and even a colony of parakeets and it`s a place where I along with many others get 20 mins a day of exercise.

But its not just about exercise its about fresh air, freedom and wellbeing and the more time we can spend in these places and the more money we spend on managing, promoting and maintaining them and encouraging their use, the less we will have to spend on our already overburdened healthcare.

Figure 2: Mersey Valleys green open spaces as preventative medicine

The most obvious every day locations are to be found in our towns and city centres where we have simply got to reduce the reliance on the car, remove harmful pollutants from the air and encourage more people onto footpaths and bicycles, to make use of our public transport and create cleaner, healthier and more attractive city centres. Over 80% of our public space is comprised of streets and road space which depressingly are usually dominated by vehicles. We must find ways of delivering more connected cities that by their design, create more healthy lifestyles, with integrated planning that supports mobility, a greener environment responsible forms of transport and low carbon outcomes.

In Leeds we are creating a more attractive city centre to help stimulate residential development by making its streets more accessible, safer, quieter, calmer and conducive to connected living.

Figure 3: Reimagined Leeds streetscape

Another vital area are, our schools grounds. We have over:

23,000 Nurserie’s
21,000 Primary schools
4,000 Secondary schools
Figure 4: Kingsway Primary play space

Recent data shows that almost a third of UK children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese and the Uk`s children spend less time outside than our prison population

Everyone of them is a potential gold mine of healthy pursuits, a breeding ground to foster longer term healthy activities. We are amongst the worst in Europe. We know that diet plays a big part in that but exercise is the other key factor. We often pay around £1,500 a square metre for our internal floorspace but the challenges I face everyday to justify spending just £100 per m2 on these vital outdoor spaces frustrates and baffles me when you think of the incredible value they can return. Helping in social interaction, exercise, play, invention and quiet contemplation. We are starting to see more care, attention and funds being directed into the external school spaces in Primary secondary and higher education because it delivers dividends. The new Forest schools with principles of blurring the edge between internal and external learning spaces have been a particular success.

Figure 5: Lime tree Primary Forest school Manchester

There`s quite a few other obvious places where we can take the fight and one of these is our Public parks. Many surveys suggest that people like to live close to a decent park and would make use of it. BUT they have to be relevant to our youngsters (and our oldsters) they have to be safe, well lit, clean and well managed, with great play facilities, wifi, a café and a variety of walks and useful activities for all ages to make them relevant attractions. At Devonport park in Plymouth part of an historic park within close reach of thousands of residents we found a park in poor repair and becoming an irrelevant No go place. We introduced a series of simple measures including new walls, railings, lighting, upgraded paths and planting but most importantly a natural play adventure playground, part designed by local children form 6 - 16 it was hoping to attract. They wanted a bit of freedom, a bit of danger and something that appealed to them. Over 3,000 people turned up to the opening event and it has been a huge success getting countless kids off their laptops and on to the playtops.

With cities reduced or devoid of cars what we could do with those spaces to encourage even more healthy activity of walking cycling and an improved environment?

Below is a design competition entry we posted in 2016 to celebrate the work of Joseph Paxton who initiated the English Parks movement. He saw them as a simple antidote to the oppressive Industrial cities rising around him in the mid 19th century. We took a city centre site, the former BBC HQ close to the notorious “Little Ireland” where Engels wrote about the appalling slum conditions which helped gave rise to the English parks movement in the 1850s. It`s just one example of the many prime city centre sites that lie in the midst of Manchester`s burgeoining new and old quarters, each seems to have a ready-made city square or mini park at its heart but currently they are occupied by car parks, attracting yet more cars into the city centre, adding to the pollution, the noise and the traffic. Imagine the symbolic value of converting some of these spaces into vibrant new city mini parks.

Figure 6: Joseph Paxton memorial Park Manchester