Designing for Health and Wellbeing

10 Oct 19

It is increasingly important to understand how the planning system can be utilised more fully to encourage healthy lifestyles. We are seeing more joined up thinking around topics such as health, the built environment, planning, global climate change and matters such as air quality.


There are various themes which are gaining momentum in the built environment arena relating to health, wellbeing and their relationship to design. Terms such as ‘Healthy Planning’ and ‘Social Value’ are becoming more commonplace. There are also more detailed assessments being undertaken to objectively measure the performance of development; such as Health Impact Assessments (as part of the planning application process on larger schemes) and the WELL building accreditation (which is a tool used by architects for advancing health and wellbeing in buildings). A couple of these themes are explored below, drawing on views from Ben Channon, Associate and WELL AP at Assael Architecture.

Ben notes, from an architectural perspective, that there has been a rapid rise in relation to wellbeing in both the mainstream and architectural press – and he believes that signs from within the industry suggest that wellbeing is very much here to stay.

Architecturally, there have been recent developments, such as the WELL Building Standard. This was launched in 2014, and now has over 3,500 projects registered with the standard across 58 countries, meaning more than 440 million square feet of buildings are being assessed for their impact on peoples’ health and wellbeing. Assael Architecture is seeing this interest reflected in their client base too. While the UK has been relatively slow in picking up on wellbeing (only 7 UK projects were WELL Certified as of April 2019), this year Assael has seen a shift in the market’s perception of the subject, with a number of clients asking them to explore WELL for their projects.

Beyond WELL, other frameworks and bodies such as Fitwel and the Global Wellness Institute also seek to provide healthier buildings. A range of other resources to help design healthier environments are also available, such as the UK Green Building Council’s ‘Health and Wellbeing in Homes’.

This new market force in Architecture seems to partly be down to customers, who are becoming ever more aware of the impact the built environment can have on them. Front page news stories, such as a Times piece this year on the relationship between air quality and depression in young people, have brought to light the importance of buildings to both our physical and mental wellbeing. A frequently quoted figure from the International WELL Building Institute states that 60% of homeowners would now be willing be pay more for a healthy home.

This is resulting is an upward shift in the quality of many new buildings. As employers become ever more aware that happier staff are more productive and less likely to leave, the importance of high-quality office space is becoming vital in the race for top employees. In response to a greater demand for homes which support better health, developers are exploring certifications such as WELL to not only communicate that their buildings are healthier, but also to gain a branding edge over competitors. The rise of Build to Rent and Co-living has led to a greater range of housing products in recent years, and their focus on long-term returns seems well aligned to a wellbeing approach.

In Planning circles, it was interesting to note that the opening session at the Oxford Joint Planning Law Conference 2019 was presented by Professor Sir Malcolm Grant CBE on “Healthy Planning”. This re-iterated how important it is to seek to reduce the burden of ill-health and to be more proactive rather than reactive when seeking to achieve health outcomes. It also reinforced the need to encourage more integration with the planning system with the aim of seeking healthier outcomes for the population.

It is increasingly important to understand how the planning system can be utilised more fully to encourage healthy lifestyles. We are seeing more joined up thinking around topics such as health, the built environment, planning, global climate change and matters such as air quality. This is also coming through in the NHS-Led Healthy New Towns Programme and through identifying, for example, how green infrastructure, Arts and Culture, and sense of place can deliver positive mental health outcomes. Health and wellbeing planning policies are becoming more commonplace and it will be interesting to see how they will shape development management decisions as these factors become increasingly important for local communities.

These topics were firmly on the agenda for the Healthy City Design International 2019 conference in London this week which drilled down into many issues such as how we can design a thriving, health-inducing future for our citizens. Topics covered included childhood obesity; the impact of music on wellbeing and its’ links to the built environment and successful places. Also, emerging frameworks for measuring the extent to which health and wellbeing are being addressed through new development were presented and fantastic examples highlighted from NHS Health Scotland; the great work being done in Wales and some fantastic examples from other European cities. The presentations also outlined the work which Public Health England are doing and there was a workshop on the “All Party Parliamentary Group for healthy homes and buildings” and the October 2018 White Paper.

One of the main takeaways from the two-day event was that we all need to be applying more joined up thinking on the topics of health and planning at all levels and at all stages, with grassroots community involvement, so that new developments and places meet local and future occupier needs and contribute towards better health. There needs to be strong community involvement from the outset. This will then help to maximise healthy outcomes for the resident population moving forward. Encouraging activity, movement and better social connections can make very significant contributions to reducing the burden on our healthcare systems.

We expect these matters will also be high on the agenda for younger generations who could well demand more attention is given to these factors as we have seen with their approach to the climate change agenda.

The increased attention to these topics in architectural and planning circles also forms part of wider “social value” considerations which we will be exploring more in future posts. Although social value was established as a public sector procurement exercise, awareness has now grown to the extent that social value forms a key part of many development and regeneration projects. It is also very clear that thought-leaders in the healthcare sectors are looking more at the planning system to consider these matters and see the benefit of working with the planning system to help achieve better health outcomes for all. The origins of the planning system were bedded in addressing health concerns. It’s now time to bring these two matters closer together again.

In summary, it is clear that these topics are gaining momentum in a number of different fields. However, it is increasingly important for all involved in the design process to be considering health and wellbeing from the outset. Local communities, key stakeholders, land owners, developers, architects and planners need to collaborate more around these various themes so that we can contribute towards achieving healthy outcomes through new development.

It is increasingly important to put people, health and wellbeing at the centre of the design and planning process again so that the buildings, spaces and places we collectively deliver achieve these key aims by encouraging healthy lifestyles for the future users and occupiers.
Gill Eaton MRTPI, Associate (Planning), Wellbeing Champion and Member of the Health and Wellbeing in Planning Network