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‘Town planning could be a major health intervention’

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One of the annoying things about modern life is our general distaste for simple things. Take trees, for example. Tall bits of wood with leaves at the top and roots at the bottom. On the face of it, most people don’t dislike trees. Many – and not just carpenters or squirrels – profess to liking them.

Yet, collectively over the last 30–40 years, when faced with a decision between keeping trees or building houses or a car park, we have tended towards the car park.

Yes, a minority of people have tried to defend trees but they have tended to be called Mudlark or Forest Mist and have on occasions married woodland creatures so are not taken seriously by a community rooted in the harsh realities of economics and desperate for more storage depots.

Trees – and their entourage of grass and bushes – have become perceived as disposable. They are simple and dull, while modernity is complex, pressing and shiny.

But research in The Lancet tells us that green spaces are good for health and help to significantly reduce health inequalities. When researchers reviewed the records of more than a third of a million people, they found that living near to even a small green space made a big difference to their risk of fatal diseases like heart disease or stroke.

If we had a coordinated approach to well-being, this sort of research would contribute to the design of the space we live in.
The chances are if you were to ask 20 individuals if they would prefer to live near a small woodland with perhaps a babbling brook and some baby deer or some more shops, most would vote for Bambi.

But if we seek a consensus from the same 20, some kind of collective consciousness takes over and the green space is passed over in favour of a dry cleaners, an all-night off-licence and a shop selling ceramic cats. This seems to happen because ‘we’ start to worry about wealth and regeneration and the reality of modern life – a reality that has little time for banal things like trees. Or health.

We know that well-being is the most important consideration when we think about how to organise ourselves. We also know, because the Wanless report spelt it out, that looking after that well-being is going to be economically unviable in the future if the circumstances remain as they are.

Organising ourselves in a more healthy way – thinking of our environment, where our food comes from, what choices are available to us – has to be the most important health intervention we can make.

It may not be feasible for nurses to take over town planning but it is sensible that health is considered in detail at every level of social planning. I wonder which professional group will take on that responsibility.

Want to read more of Mark Radcliffe’s opinions? Just click on the more by this author link at the top of the page.

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