Fit London: Designing a healthier city

Thursday 3 July 2014

London must do more to create healthier environments if a worrying rise in childhood obesity and a string of adult diseases and disorders can be reversed.

That was one of the key findings to emerge from a special half-day conference at the NLA on ‘FIT London – designing a healthier city’ on Tuesday 1 July, which looked at how effective placemaking and the creation of attractive workplaces can contribute to happier people and better environments.

Gehl Architects director Riccardo Marini said the practice was involved in placemaking – ‘about turning a place you don’t want to be in to a place you never want to leave’, helping people ‘re-conquer cities’, and always building on an extensive evidence base. But one of the key problems was the way economics work, said Marini, where we start with buildings and end up often with ‘dysfunctional spaces’. Velocity was a dangerous thing for cities, he went on, and the best environments are those which take on board the human’s average speed. ‘If you design places around the notion of people moving at 5km/h you create de facto healthier spaces’, he said.

People needed ‘invitations’ to cycle or walk more, we need to ‘move away from burning oil to burning calories’, and, as with the work Gehl Architects did so successfully in New York, the creation of temporary projects can be an effective way of bringing about change, ‘sucking life into a space’ overnight. and providing a way to get past the ‘folded arms’ of doubting traffic engineers and others in officialdom.

Yvonne Doyle, director of Public Health England said that the UK doesn’t do at all well in terms of ‘healthy lives’ indicators, with only the US having a worse record. We have been ‘obsessed’ in this country about the NHS, rather than health, need to acknowledge and cope better with the health risks of living in London, but must also take action to try and reverse a worrying rise in childhood obesity, with 37% of children aged 10-11 now obese in the capital. Measures to do this, she said, include better utilising London’s key green spaces – some 38% of land in London is occupied by green space – and ‘reorientate’ the market for healthy food.

Lucy Saunders, Public Health Specialist, GLA said healthy streets are essential to healthy cities, and the GLA uses 10 indicators to judge them, including whether there is clean air, whether they are easy to cross, too noisy, safe, and even whether people feel relaxed. She added that a tool to help quantify and monetize health aspects of transport schemes could help, along with an online tool at

In terms of specific London areas, Hackney, said the authority’s health legacy programme manager Jane Connor, has devised special planning guidance akin to that in Barking and Dagenham aimed at cutting the proliferation of hot food takeaways and has a healthy urban planning checklist. But vision and political leadership have been key reasons why its cycling policy – Hackney wanted an 80% increase in cycling levels by 2010 – has been such a success, said Connor.

In the private sector, Derwent London is putting healthy policies into action, with development manager Benjamin Lesser explaining how the White Collar Factory project at Old Street will include extensive cycle provision with 276 spaces, storage and showers to respond to the ‘stratospheric’ rise in bike usage in London. The scheme also features a running track on the roof, openable windows, and a programme of signage to encourage people to use the prominent stairs in preference to the lifts.

The conference also heard from LLDC chief of design Kathryn Firth, who detailed the design of the Olympic Park, sports facilities and under-construction Chobham Manor, whose residential blocks encourage people to walk and whose housing all has safe cycle parking integrated. Jordana Malik, meanwhile, director of communications at Renewal, took the audience through the developer’s project to create 2,500 new homes, a hotel, jobs, leisure and sports facilities at the Surrey Canal around Millwall FC. David J Burney, Professor of Planning and Placemaking, Pratt Institute School of Architecture, New York City said via a video link that New York and London were very similar, with a strong link between health equity and social equity, but that real change happens when political sides align. 

And finally Marylis Ramos, associate director at PRP, said building design needs to cut through our sedentary lifestyles and encourage people to keep fit. Good practice includes designing fun, different environments which encourage movement as at places like Google’s Zurich office, complete with slide, treadmill- and even cycling desks, wobble chairs, dynamic walkways, and rooftop gardens. But there were also larger design moves to make to encourage a fitter London. ‘Don’t make the elevator lobby the event’, said Ramos, ‘make it the staircase.’ 

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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This NLA exhibition is an adaptation of the travelling exhibition, FitNation, kindly donated to us by the American Institute of Architects and the Centre for Active Design in New York.