Fyson on ... Obesity crisis responsibility

Why planners should be wary of assuming immediate responsibility for predicted obesity crisis.

The sustainable settlement has to be a healthy place in which to live. When think-tank Foresight wrote Tackling Obesities: Future Choices, it noted that every discipline consulted had suggested a different driver to be of primary importance in tackling obesity.

The experts included nutritionists, physiologists, economists, social scientists and architects. So it was hardly surprising that the RTPI, its holistic spatial planning credentials in hand, should issue an "us too" message, claiming that "planning is central to tackling obesity and related public health issues".

Planners familiar with constant role inflation in their professional lives can no doubt take this in their stride, particularly as their own conclusions about sustainable environments usually promote walking and cycling, both potential sources of exercise.

However, the Foresight group in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has emphasised that the causes of obesity are neither simple nor well understood. They do not take the form of a straightforward energy equation expressed as "too much in, not enough out".

The first rule for the kind of spatial planning that embraces areas of expertise far removed from the primary place-making skills of planners must be to proceed with both modesty and caution. The ancient but usually disregarded medical truism that regardless of one's weight exercise makes you hungry suggests that there is more to obesity control than building neighbourhood gyms. Motorised transport has caused weight gain, but sedentary lifestyles and the abundance of energy-dense food may be overwhelming the personal responsibility of weight control.

Diet, food advertising and cooking are perhaps far more central to tackling obesity than town planning. Nevertheless, creating appropriate environments, especially in urban areas, is vital. Presenting the project's findings in the Commons, health secretary Alan Johnson pointed to substantial measures that might be taken by local authorities to "ensure that healthy living is built into the infrastructure of our towns and cities" so that "planning systems", by which he presumably meant policies, improve our well-being.

Planners promoting gardens, open space and houses that give the opportunity for everyone to live on the ground rather than in flats relate to this aim. The built environment and health are inextricably linked. As the RTPI observes, alternatives to dense city development are likely to be healthier. But in the particular association of planning with obesity control, it would be wise to remain supportive but circumspect.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

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