Planners can take lead on laying foundations for healthy future

One of the nightmare scenarios facing the UK is that unless urgent action is taken to get the population to exercise more, around half of adults will be obese by the middle of the century.

This is not the headline-grabbing claim of campaigners or health fascists but the measured observation of the Foresight programme, a government-backed initiative by leading scientists that provides visions of the future on key public policy issues.

The consequences for the health budget will be disastrous, with diabetes, heart disease and cancer rates likely to rocket. As if that isn't bad enough, the impact will be felt across numerous sectors, not least transport and the public realm. The government is pumping billions of pounds into the NHS to tackle lifestyle diseases. Yet there is a growing realisation that prevention is almost certainly better than cure - and considerably cheaper.

Not for the first time, planning finds itself part of the cross-cutting response to an emerging crisis. Although spatial planning may not have entered the public's consciousness, it still remains intrinsic to tackling tomorrow's ills. Anything that gets health and planning officials sitting round the same table to feed solutions into community strategies has to be a giant leap forward. It is not just joined-up thinking, it is common sense.

Several accepted principles of sound urban design encourage people to become more active by providing walkways, cycle routes and open space and cutting car use. In the USA, this is known as "location efficiency". People who live in densely populated places with good amenities tend to drive less, walk more and use public transport. Over here, it is the ultimate in sustainable development.

The benefits are manifold. A move in this direction will counter future health problems and go a long way towards reducing carbon emissions. Planning has borne the brunt of some outrageous attacks in recent years from vested interests whose idea of long-term thinking is next year's balance sheet or tomorrow's headline. As the country starts to face up to this century's challenges, it is obvious that if planning did not exist it would have to be invented.


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