Healthy communities: tools, guidance, and metrics

Colourful photo of tools like sticky notes, screw driver, pliers on a black background. wellbeing

Healthy communities: tools, guidance, and metrics

Does the world need another toolkit?!

When we think about how to support health in communities and how practitioners in the built environment can ultimately help create healthier developments there seems to be an array of toolkits available.   Yet how do we know which one to use?  It becomes quite difficult to understand which tool is best suited to any given project.  This session chaired by Urban Habitats’ director Mark Drane at the Healthy City Design Congress explored precisely this question.

A Toolbox for Healthy Cities

Consultant and sustainable health planner Mieke Weterings working at the City of Rotterdam discussed that with so many toolkit options for the design process, there is a need for a ‘Toolbox’ approach.  This approach takes current toolkits for design and adds them to a matrix which can then be developed as a searchable database.  When stakeholders know what they want to achieve in each project, a matrix ca be used to assess which tools are most appropriate for the job.  These can then be used to develop programme requirements to assist designing for and integrating human and planetary health.

For professionals already working in the field much of this knowledge of tools may already exist as tacit knowledge.  However for stakeholders not working in urban planning and built environment fields the array of options can be bewildering.

So, how can we achieve human and planetary health in all aspects of design?

Mieke identified that there is great scope for the market, companies, social organisations, supported by city government to collaborate on initiatives and investments for sustainable and healthy development.  Currently or in the past there is often a heavy reliance on the community to implement change. With the collaborative approach promoted in Rotterdam there is hope that more can be done to integrate health in all sectors for a better future.

Urban Community Index

The various types of physical infrastructure that exist in a community, from schools and shops to open space and community facilities are all part of the wider built fabric of that environment.  Ruth Hynes of Atkins looked into the challenges of understanding how the elements of this fabric can support communities.  Ruth also identified why it should be an important part of urban planning and how can we overcome the struggle to fully understand and investigate the relationship between people and place when project timescales are often tight.

Four interrelated principles are highlighted that provide the baseline framework for describing and understanding communities: people, place, spatial connectivity, agency and access.  Both quantitative, open source data sets and qualitative community evidence are combined which is a real strength of this approach.  With strong community engagement seen as an important part of this method its aim is to provide structure to the complex question of understanding neighbourhoods, communities, and the space around them.


After more than 3 years in development, director at HLM Architects, Neil Orpwood introduced HLM_Healthcheck, one of three digital tools that make up a Thoughtful Design Toolkit. The tool assesses how building design concepts are likely to perform in terms of quality of the environment for the people who use them.  And it supports designers in rapid assessment, iteration, and honing of early design concepts.

Neil highlighted this is believed to be the first holistic tool to consider key aspects of the built environment in one platform.  The tool relies on simple data inputs that determinable at a very early design stage, and does not require specialised 3D modelling skills from the users.  This helps the practice to reduce the amount of abortive re-working later in the design process by bringing this insight to the earliest stages and this helps give the team, clients, and funders greater confidence in the proposals from the outset. Is this the way forward for a sustainable and healthy approach to design practise in future?

Salutogenic City Sketchbook

Trio Marcus Wilshere, Richard Mazuch and Liz Loughran, presented the brand new Salutogenic City Sketchbook developed following an extensive review of healthy placemaking approaches.  They shared how existing guides play an important role however are more focused on either generalised or overly technical programmes.  The aim is for the sketchbook to invoke thought, spark enthusiasm, and share a vision of what’s possible in how we can address human and planetary health in all developments.  Uniting healthy place principles with practice, it provides the tool to build the bridge between practice guidance and designers and their wider stakeholders.

An example shared was of edible neighbourhoods: the idea that a network of gardeners can come together in the local community to pool produce from city green space and distribute these goods to local markets and food banks. The benefits of this are tenfold, with a real focus on improved diet, healthy outdoor activity and making space for a sociable environment, not to mention cutting waste.

Book cover image: Salutogenic City Sketchbook
The Salutogenic City Sketchbook – a sketchbook of design ideas to put healthy place principles into practice. Image credit: the speakers

What is the gap in current design tools that these ideas seek to fulfil?

The discussion focussed around a number of questions raising points like:

Often when we are assessing health data we see unequal outcomes for different communities.  Frequently what we are really looking at is the result of many forms of structural discrimination.  So it is important for these issues to be addressed directly within these tools and not avoided or glossed over.

Where does the end user fit in?   It is important to identify as these tools do opportunities for end users to engage and beyond the usual level of consultation – for example could community researchers  be trained and paid to do the work to envision their own community alongside practitioners with specialised expertise.

So in answer to the overall question on – does the world need another toolbox or toolkit?  The conclusion was that there are indeed gaps to fill in existing approaches and finding the right tool for the job is vitally important – there’s no one tool that will address every situation.

The importance of direct person to person collaboration was also emphasised though even though this has been difficult during Covid-19.  Mark Drane as chair reflected that every city should have a person like Mieke available for communities and stakeholders to approach who can offer friendly and expert guidance on those classic public health questions – what works for whom, when, and in what setting?

Urban Habitats

Here at Urban Habitats, working for change is exactly what we aim to do.  We use creative, inclusive, and evidence informed thinking to narrow knowledge gaps, increase understanding, and broaden the scope for the future of healthier places for both people and planet.

Healthy City Design International: Research, Policy, Practice

Healthy City Design International Congress & Exhibition is a global forum for the exchange of knowledge on the research, policy and practice of designing healthy and sustainable cities and communities.  The theme of this year’s congress was: ‘Back from the brink: Designing for climate, community and social value’.  Urban Habitats is delighted to support the congress as Knowledge Leaders.

Cat Lyddon