Journey to a Healthier Wales, Placemaking Matters

Person sat on hilltop looking over green land and winding road below wellbeing

Journey to a Healthier Wales, Placemaking Matters

The Future Generations Commissioner For Wales has launched a key part their flagship programme, Art of the Possible.  Urban Habitats has been privileged to contribute thinking to this and here our director, Mark Drane, shares his reflections on the new Journey Checker resources and what this means for practitioners.

The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 is a way of doing things differently.  Wales is leading the world in this focus and as Lord Bird noted in a House of Lords debate calling for a similar approach in England:

“I do not think we can find a way of doing anything about poverty unless we reinvent the future and bring it forward to today.” (Source: Hansard)

The Act, underpinned by the duty to undertake sustainable development, is about prevention; working long term; taking an integrated approach; involving people; and collaboration.

Working in the built environment sector for over 20 years I know it doesn’t always happen like this.  Just because an investment case, a brief, a tender submission says all these things doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.  This is a sector which largely fails to undertake evaluation and mainly gives the impression that success is spending the capital money in delivering outputs but rarely assesses the outcomes for society.  Put another way the sector is brilliant and skilled at delivering physical infrastructure (e.g. a school) but lacks the space for thinking (moreso than the tools or frameworks we think) about what actually changed as a result (e.g. did it help children learn and live happy, healthy, socially connected lives). 

In another article I’ve written on why Prof. Flora Samuel’s work is of such importance and sets out these problems in much greater and fearless detail.  We might also consider how all sectors including public services are increasingly under pressure of disruption from all around and what the role of true innovation in addressing this can be.  Arabel Bailey speaks powerfully on this and her firm Accenture has published an interesting report on this topic which chimes a lot with why I founded Urban Habitats, to integrate research and development into the heart of practic/se.

So big issues… maybe they seem too big, that’s certainly how I sometimes feel.  It can be helpful to refocus: as with sustainability, wellbeing and health are perhaps better thought of as a journey rather than a definitive goal.  That’s where the Journey Checkers support precisely this around the seven wellbeing goals plus involvement, one of the ways of working in the legislation.  Within the Healthier Wales goal, convened by Dr Rachel Hughes, four focus areas are identified each with its own journey tracker (and do look at the other goals as there is much cross-fertilisation between them):

Each tracker is arranged at varying degrees of making simple changes; being more adventurous; and owning your ambition.  Dr Rachel Hughes has written for the Institute of Welsh Affairs on the first of these in a recent blog.  Here I would like to focus on placemaking. 

For practitioners and researchers in the field it will be recognised that even just having the role of placemaking recognised at this level is a big step forward.  If you read them you will also note that many of the other related goals have elements of built and natural environment recognised within them too: for example green space supporting a resilient Wales; supply chain procurement supporting a globally responsible Wales; and community engagement in development proposals supporting a more equal Wales. 

It’s great to see health impact assessment at the top of the list and we need look no further than the Welsh Health Impact Assessment Unit within Public Health Wales for an approach that is not only rigorous but also places great emphasis on co-production and participation.  Practitioners will recognise many of the ideas – they may seem straight forward, in many ways that’s precisely the point: make stairs clear and sign them; provide drinking water; incorporate edible landscaping; provide places for people to walk in new residential developments; lower the speed limit to 20mph; and many more.

Of course what is simple for one person can be adventurous for others and that is certainly the case I find working between urban design and public health.  For example, from a policy point of view 20mph is fairly straight forward: from an urban design or highways engineering perspective it’s quite complex if you want to create truly walking friendly environments.  This is where true collaboration and integration of course comes and at Urban Habitats we are increasingly seeing projects that bring multiple groups and organisations round the table to address on this.  In this work we often find breaking down disciplinary silos and obscure language is actually one of the biggest barriers to working together successfully.

Leading the way in my own practice and research means addressing something something that seems very hard for everyone – creating with communities.  If we truly recognise agency as a wider determinant of health and are prepared to actually deliver on the human rights of people and communities to be involved in decisions about their own lives then practitioners must fundamentally address this in our own practises.  My own doctoral research will move into fieldwork during 2020 and prioritises the voice of residents on a single street over a year and what actually matters to them for their own wellbeing.  In Urban Habitats we have introduced an assessment of each potential commission that ranks its potential for: addressing population health; working to reduce inequalities; creating with the community / end users; evidence informed.  These are just some of our small steps: I am truly hopeful that the new Journey Checkers will help prompt you in your practic/se.

In the end, health cannot however be delivered by courier or sent by bank transfer: it is created with people.  If we get that right, we’ll have gone a long way toward a healthier Wales.

Mark Drane is the director and founder of Urban Habitats and a Doctoral Researcher at the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments, UWE Bristol.

Mark Drane