The Wider Physical and Built Environment - How do we create healthy places and spaces?

Written by Dave Stock, Strategic Relationships Manager- Active Together / Sport England Extended Workforce



We all know there is a range of existing and emerging health and well-being challenges at population and local levels. A reported increase in childhood obesity, an ageing and increasingly “inactiv" older population together with a rising prevalence of multimorbidity (multiple health conditions) among the adult population provides some challenging health concerns for many public services. The Covid pandemic has exacerbated many of these issues and puts further strain on public services. The gap in physical activity participation (and subsequent health outcomes) between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged social groups in some reports is growing.


Although we need to acknowledge that multiple factors determine an individual’s health and motivation to be physically active, we really should begin to think more seriously and recognise that the design of our physical and built environment plays a significant role in shaping healthy and physical activity behaviours over the long term.

Hear from the leading organisations as we create environments that improve the health of the nation.


What does developing Active Environments mean?


Over the last year or so we all would have begun to see and recognise the term “Active Environments”. In the grand scheme of things, I’d say it’s a relatively new term (two separate words put together to create some new meaning) but I am not quite sure we have collectively defined what it means for our work and roles. Listening to my Active Partnership colleagues over the past 18 months, through our community of practice work, (a tribute to my colleagues here Simon Hamilton, Adrian Ledbury, and Dr Rosie Rowe, among others) it’s clear that there is a lot of interest, appetite, ability and willingness to delve into and support this agenda. At the same time, there seem to be lots of different, understanding, interpretations, perspectives, and approaches to what developing “Active Environments” actually mean.


"Supporting active travel plans, regenerating community spaces, influencing new housing design, engaging with planning policy, health impact assessments, encouraging biodiversity, design and planning of green spaces. . . The list goes on!"

This isn’t a bad thing, but we have to acknowledge that this is a big and complex topic, with lots of components that need thinking about. We also need to acknowledge that shaping our physical and built environment is primarily a “long game” and one that needs national joined up and a collaborative system led approach from many different sectors, services and system partners.


As an Active Partnership, whatever you do at a local level to support developing an active environment, there will likely be a role somewhere for a planner, environmentalist, transport expert, community and voluntary groups, a developer, Public Health consultant, Community Safety lead.


Inevitably with all the above in mind, when we talk about “Active Environments”, what we mean is, designing and developing our spaces and places to be healthy that encourage people to move more and be physically active.


As many have quoted before - every physical and built environment has the potential to encourage movement.

“An ever-increasing body of research indicates that the environment in which we live is linked to our health across the life course. For example, the design of our neighbourhoods can influence physical activity levels, travel patterns, social connectivity, mental and physical health and well-being outcomes.”


The Starting Point


So, what is the starting point for our network contribution? Firstly, we need to tackle this as a “complex problem”. There is no one organisation that can ensure all of our environments become physically activity friendly. Rather the solution is the sum contribution from many parts of the system. Our planning, transport, health, education and voluntary partners (among many others) all have a role to play, but this needs co-ordination.


The immediate challenge we have is implementation, and implementation at scale. Advocacy, capacity building and guidance are key, but this really comes to life where there is local facilitation and where local leaders and influencers have an understanding of the connection between placemaking decisions, positive health and well-being outcomes


From my own observations and engagement with the planning and development system over the past couple of years, and when thinking about design and development of new built environments especially, it’s the capacity, the join up and sometimes the leadership that affects the implementation of these great ideas at a local level.


Is it the case that its everybody’s job, but nobody’s job?

"Advocate and influence the design and development of our local spaces, places, and natural and built environments in a way that those spaces and developments are conducive to people moving more, being more physically active and embracing active travel."

There can be policy references in local plans, supplementary planning documents and design guides that talk about green space, active travel, provision of sports facilities, but across the country there are too many examples where this has not translated on the ground to deliver high quality Active Environments. It's at this point where I am convinced with the right support, capacity and collaboration nationally and locally, that Active Partnerships are the untapped asset that have the right positioning to play a critical local role.


Job opportunities working in this space at a local level include;

  • Championing and advocating for healthy place making.

  • Evidencing the health benefits of intelligent design.

  • Influencing local policy and practice.

  • Joining up the local services and sectors.

  • Maximising the use of existing spaces and places.

This is much easier said than done and I am under no illusion that this requires new capacity. Uniting The Movement, the new Sport England 10-year strategy sets out the importance and critical contribution that a well designed and accessible wider physical environment can have on physical activity levels and the health of the population. Alongside the need to protect and develop dedicated sports facilities (pitches, courts, pools), community spaces (parks, schools, community halls) the strategy sets out a manageable challenge that we could and should all play an active role. There is little dispute that the design of the places where we live, work, travel and enjoy leisure has a direct impact on our motivation, inclination, and decisions to be active.


To read more visit Active Partnership website