Fitness offers star potential

A nationwide health campaign can help planners to improve their public repute, suggests Ben Willis.

The planning profession carries a hefty burden on its shoulders.

From climate change to protecting the countryside, few of the most pressing social issues of the day seem beyond the planner's call of duty.

Now, as if safeguarding the planet's future was not enough, another gauntlet has been thrown at the sector's feet - the nation's mental health. According to a report issued earlier this month by sustainable travel charity Sustrans (Planning, 11 November, p6), planners hold the key to keeping a rising tide of UK mental health problems at bay.

In England alone, the report claims, conditions such as depression, anxiety and stress cost the NHS almost £4 billion a year to treat, more than 12 per cent of its annual expenditure. Nearly 40 per cent of incapacity benefit claims are made on the grounds of mental health conditions, while 13 million sick days are taken annually as a result of workplace stress.

All the evidence shows that society is getting lazier. Last year a Commons select committee calculated that the average person now walks 300km a year, compared to 410km just 20 years ago. Cycling levels have fallen by 80 per cent in the past 50 years and only half the nation's children take the government's recommended level of exercise a week.

The reason is simple. "As a society we have gone out of our way to make sure traffic flows smoothly, but at the expense of walking and cycling," says Philip Insall, director of Sustrans's active travel programme. "The environment around us makes it much more difficult to walk or cycle so we are actually encouraged to lead sedentary lives."

This is where planners come in. Insall believes that with mental health problems putting such a strain on the public purse, planners have an increasingly important role to play in creating an environment that encourages activity.

Through a range of relatively simple interventions, he argues, planners could make an enormous difference to the amount of exercise the public takes as part of its daily routine.

Figures suggest that up to 30 per cent of all journeys taken in this country are shorter than 3km, an easily walkable distance for most people.

The key is to make people want to walk. Citing sources such as the chief medical officer, Sustrans argues that many of our costly health problems could be nipped in the bud if society relied less on the car and took more exercise.

"One simple thing would be to move away from an automatic assumption of providing lots of parking spaces in developments, something that we are already starting to see," Insall maintains. Another area where he believes that planners could come into their own is through the provision of "high-quality and fine-grained" walking and cycling access.

He suggests that most highways agencies are signed up, at least in principle, to the so-called "York hierarchy" - walkers before cyclists before motorists.

"In practice you can see that this is not really the case," he laments.

"The classic example is having a pedestrianised retail area that you cannot actually get to by foot or bike because it is ringed by large, busy service roads."

Sustrans is not alone in demanding greater action from transport planners in promoting exercise. Living Streets, formerly the Pedestrian Association, is playing a leading role in lobbying the government to recognise the link between health and an active lifestyle.

It argues that part of the problem is a lack of suitable training for transport planners in how to design exercise into everyday living.

"A lot of the decisions on design come down to transport professionals," says Living Streets chief executive Tom Franklin. "A lot of them need to be retrained to understand the design impacts of what they do on making public space a place where people want to be, rather than something they are just rushing through."

As a local councillor, Franklin has noticed a worrying lack of regard for pedestrians and cyclists among local politicians charged with determining planning applications. "Whole developments go through the planning process with no consideration being given to active travel," he protests.

Franklin also condemns a lack of leadership from central government.

Since health and transport are dealt with separately, the connections between the two are not made, he contends. "We have the Department of Health focusing on getting sick people better and the Department for Transport focusing on moving people around. So the issue has fallen between the two," he explains.

One area where Franklin believes the government could take a real lead is through the introduction of a national walking strategy, something for which Living Streets has long campaigned. "We now have an action plan for walking and cycling, which goes some of the way. But it does not quite meet what we were hoping for from a walking strategy," he complains.

It is something worth pursuing. Evidence gathered by Sustrans suggests that as a society we are not naturally lazy and would respond positively to better active travel options. Figures gathered from the national cycle network show that a quarter of people using the facility could have made the same journey by car but chose not to because of the provision of a cycleway.

The challenge now is to use this evidence as leverage to persuade politicians and planners that promoting walking and cycling is good for the nation's health and mental well-being. "Planners could become heroes by doing their job in a way that makes an active life easier than an inactive one," says Insall. "It is a bitter pill to swallow, but nearly all areas of public policy would be served by reducing the volume and speed of motor traffic."

Active Travel and Mental Well-Being can be viewed via


- Physical activity is defined as "any force exerted by skeletal muscle that results in energy expenditure above resting level".

- The recommended daily amount of physical activity is 30 minutes for adults and one hour for children on five or more days a week.

- The government has set a target in England and Wales for 70 per cent of the population to be "reasonably active" by 2020. In Scotland the target is for 50 per cent of adults to achieve minimum levels by 2022.

- The chief medical officer for England stated last year that the target will only be achieved by helping people to build activity into their routines and that "the most acceptable forms of physical activity are those that can be incorporated into everyday life", such as walking or cycling instead of driving.

- Only 37 per cent of UK men and 24 per cent of women meet the current guidelines. In Scotland, 72 per cent of women and 59 per cent of men are not active enough, making physical inactivity the most common risk factor for coronary heart disease ahead of obesity and smoking.

- In the UK, 270,000 people suffer a heart attack and heart disease accounts for more than 117,000 deaths every year.

- Between 1980 and 1998 the proportion of clinically obese people in England almost trebled to 22 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women.

- A survey carried out by the charity Mind found that 83 per cent of people with mental health problems look to physical activity to help lift their mood.

Source: Sustrans.

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