Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) has recently launched an ambitious-sounding initiative to build ten new housing developments designed to facilitate healthy lifestyles with the aid of city planning. The scheme hopes to address such issues as dementia and obesity.
The NHS believes that careful planning of communities could help achieve such goals as encouraging children to spend more time outdoors and helping the elderly to remain independent.
Since the Healthy New Towns initiative was proposed in July 2015, NHS England has assembled a team of design and technology experts to create each new town individually in an effort to promote healthy living through a modern “place-shaping” approach, which involves “better housing and urban design, and access to well-designed public spaces and facilities.”
From the NHS website:
“Options to be tested at some of these sites include fast food-free zones near schools, designing safe and appealing green spaces, building dementia-friendly streets and ensuring people can access new GP services using digital technology. The developments will reflect the needs of their local populations when working up their plans.”
‘Tackling unhealthy environments’
The program was ostensibly created in response to numerous health issues facing the country, including the fact that Britain loses more than 130 million working days each year due to illness, and that a growing percentage of British children are now prone to obesity.
Physical inactivity is the cause of 1-in-6 deaths in Britain, and studies have shown that both adults and children are getting less exercise than previous generations. Among today’s children, only 21 percent spend time playing outdoors, as compared to 71 percent of their parents when they were young.
Among British adults, it is estimated that 25 percent walk less than nine minutes per day.
The city design experts plan to fight obesity and encourage physical activity by:
“Tackling unhealthy (and ‘obesogenic’) environments by creating walkable neighbourhoods, delivering radically improved infrastructure for safe active travel and more accessible public transport, and by providing easy access to healthy and affordable food in the local area.”
What’s wrong with this picture?
At first glance, the Healthy New Towns initiative might sound like a worthwhile endeavor. After all, who doesn’t support the idea of healthier lifestyles for citizens? And if community design can help achieve that goal, then why not?
In this writer’s opinion, there is much to be skeptical about …
For one thing, healthy lifestyles – much like morality – can’t effectively be legislated or enforced. If people prefer to eat junk food, for instance, they’ll find a way to continue consuming it – even if they have to go out of their way to obtain it.
Consider the utter failure of the War on Drugs. It was based on the same kind of thinking, and it never worked in the real world.
People have a right to make their own decisions – unhealthy or not – and they tend to do so, despite laws or the good intentions of others.
The deeper issue at hand
Beyond the likelihood that such a community planning initiative is doomed to failure, there’s another huge elephant in the room that should not be ignored.
The key to building a successful and healthy community is local control and planning – not through remote design schemes handed down from a central authority.