Research Centre spotlight: Showcasing the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments’ research into healthy places

Posted on

By Professor Danielle Sinnett

The Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments (SPE) aims to develop an understanding of how to achieve healthy, resilient, sustainable and smart places, in the context of climate and ecological emergencies. We are a multidisciplinary centre of academics researching different aspects of healthy places, in terms of the benefits they provide to people, and how they can be better planned and delivered in the future. This research has close synergies with our research on sustainability and climate change resilience. This Research Centre Spotlight blog on SPE gives a flavour of some of the ways we are doing this.

We have provided evidence reviews for various organisations wishing to understand how the built environment impacts people’s health and wellbeing. In 2019, we were commissioned by Power to Change to provide a comprehensive literature review looking at the relationship between community-led housing and health. The review, led by Dr Katie McClymont, found some tentative claims that community-led housing has a positive impact on health and wellbeing outcomes, mainly from small-scale, qualitative research, especially around healthy aging and social inclusion. Our review identified a need for further research, and led to a PhD studentship, funded by Power to Change and UWE Bristol, in which Anna Hope is exploring this further. In 2021 we also published a rapid evidence review commissioned by the National Infrastructure Commission looking at infrastructure and quality of life. We found a paucity of robust evidence demonstrating the impact of energy, water, digital and waste infrastructure on quality of life. Areas with robust evidence tended to be related to those infrastructures that are challenging the status quo, such as green infrastructure and sustainable drainage systems for flood risk management, and walking and cycling infrastructure to reduce car dependency.

Another strand of our research is exploring the relationship between green infrastructure, including green spaces and trees, and health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Danielle Sinnett collaborated with the West of England Combined Authority and UWE Bristol’s Centre for Public Health and Wellbeing to study people’s use of green spaces under lockdown and how this related to health outcomes, including physical activity, quality of life and mental health. These data are currently being analysed but preliminary findings suggest that green space use and moderate-intensity physical activity increased during lockdown, with participants choosing to use those green spaces within walking distance from home. Research by Dr Helen Hoyle, in collaboration with RHS Wisley, focusing on public perceptions, values and socio-cultural drivers in designed garden settings revealed that whereas exotic (climate-adapted) planting was perceived as most attractive by the visiting public, the more naturalistic cottage-garden style was considered more mentally restorative.

A new area of our research is focused on the impact of green spaces on young people’s mental health. In 2020, Professor Danielle Sinnett contributed to a systematic review, led by Dr Issy Bray in the Centre for Public Health and Wellbeing, which explored the literature related to anxiety and depression in young people living in urban areas and their access to green space. A full article is currently under review, but briefly, we found that there is strong evidence that walking or being in a green space (e.g. a forest or park) improves mood and reduces feelings of anxiety for young people aged 14-24 years. Crucially, we also found that young people tend to underestimate the mental health benefits of their local green space, and therefore do not use it as much as they might to improve their mental health. This review forms the basis of a PhD, funded by UWE Bristol, in which Samuel Kyei is evaluating the relationship between green space exposure and student mental health and exploring the types of spaces students prefer and the activities they undertake. We have two further PhDs starting in October 2022.

In many of our post-industrial towns and cities, there are large inequalities in health. One example is the coalfields which employed large numbers of men up until the 1990s. Professor Dannielle Sinnett has been analysing Census data from 1971 to 2011 and found that in the East Midlands more people are permanently sick or disabled in the coalfields compared with other areas, and this gap has widened since the 1970s, and a publication on this analysis is under review. These industries also contributed the large areas of brownfield and contaminated land across the UK and SPE has a strand of research exploring the reuse of these sites. SPE is linked to the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments at UWE Bristol and, in 2021, we collaborated with WHO Regional Office for Europe and UWE Bristol’s Centre for Public Health and Wellbeing, to provide a systematic review of the health impacts from the redevelopment of contaminated sites. This found that there are relatively few evaluations of full-scale remediation and redevelopment of such sites. However, those that do exist report substantial risk reduction through the removal, clean up or capping of polluted soils, for example resulting in lower concentrations of lead in children’s blood. Further collaboration produced a planning brief on protecting health through urban redevelopment of contaminated sites.

We are currently looking at the role Local Planning Authorities play in bringing forward housing on brownfield land sites. This research, led by Hannah Hickman, has been commissioned by the Planning Advisory Service/Local Government Association, and found that a key challenge on many sites studied has been ensuring the successful remediation of contamination. Local Planning Authorities take the lead in negotiating appropriate mitigation strategies, and in engaging necessary experts. Their foremost concern is ensuring that contamination is mitigated to the extent that it poses no health issues to future residents. This research is likely to be published in late 2022.

We are also researching the relationship between buildings and health. Dr Louis Rice, Head of the WHO Collaborating Centre is collaborating with colleagues in the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences to investigate microbial diversity and transference in the built environment through the collection of DNA data in the ‘Living Laboratory’ of UWE Bristol’s Health Tech Hub. The research seeks to better understand what a ‘healthy biome’ in our homes might be. The design of homes, and most buildings generally, seek to reduce to microbial exposure of occupants and building users. However, there are now claims that we have perhaps gone too far in the removal of biomes, and that we ought to welcome a greater diversity of microbes in our built environments – reconnecting with microbial ‘old friends’ that are beneficial to our health and wellbeing. The research is still underway, with publications expected towards the end of 2022.

As well as investigating greenspace use under lockdown, Professor Elena Marco led a piece of research exploring how architects’ perceptions of their homes changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study identified four critical socio-spatial affordances related to the health and wellbeing of architects/designers. These new design affordances of the home recognise the need for homes to provide space to be alone and together with other members of the household, whilst also being adaptable to different uses and providing a connection between the indoors and outdoors.

Health and wellbeing in institutional settings is also key to proving healthy places. Dr Louis Rice is working with Bristol Robotics Laboratory, the Department of Education and a local school for autistic children to co-design learning spaces that better accommodate social robots. Funded by UWE Bristol, initial trials suggest social robots can improve the learning experience and wellbeing outcomes for autistic children and publications are currently under review.

Over the last few years there has been increased recognition of the importance of healthy places, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, we collaborated with Public Health England, now the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, and the Town and Country Planning Association to deliver a suite of resources for planners seeking to make better use of health evidence in their planning policies. This research found that there is a real appetite to deliver healthy places amongst local authority planners, but that this was hampered by a variety of factors, including a lack of resources and expertise in interpreting health evidence.

As these examples demonstrate, healthy placemaking is a core part of our research in SPE. If we are to tackle the challenges in our towns and cities, it is essential that we create places that support healthy behaviours and reverse the inequalities we currently see in our communities.

Back to top