During a four-month internship at Urban Habitats, I have gained a greater understanding of public health approaches to community wellbeing and the significant role of the built and natural environment in creating health. In this blog I reflect on these approaches in relation to my own community in the Afan Valley which is not an urban or city location but rather a series of dispersed communities in the South Wales Valleys. Do these approaches hold for these communities and what can be learned from these communities about creating health and wellbeing?
The Afan Valley consists of a number of distinct settlements of varying sizes, each with their own history, characteristics, opportunities, and challenges. It is located in beautiful scenery, surrounded by hills and vast areas of woodland, the Upper Afan Valley in Wales is in many ways an idyllic setting surrounded by green space and nature. Some other key positive features include, the sheer amount of community groups which are available weekly, the mountain bike park and the availability of a community run swimming pool. What I really like about the area is that the area offers some amazing walks and cycle routes which I can take advantage of daily.
The communities are however often described as deprived, including the 5th most deprived area in Wales (Welsh Government, 2021). According to the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation (WIMD, Welsh Government, 2021) the Afan Valley contains some of the most deprived communities in the wider area of Neath and Port Talbot. Most of the communities in the valley fall within the 10% or 20% most deprived in Wales. As someone with lived experience as member of this community reflection is that a place should not be condemned by statistics. With community engagement, and input, the vast amount of wealth, aside from financial, can be seen within this area.
Welsh Government other public bodies have recognised the challenges in this area of Neath Port Talbot and have worked over many years to improve opportunities and the quality of life in this area that has been stigmatised as deprived.
Urban Habitats work seeks to redress the balance from approaches and language based on deficiency toward a greater focus on community assets and resilience and the knowledge that already exists within communities to create good health.
Urban Habitats values in practice reflect this approach:
- Addressing population health
- Addressing planetary health
- Working to reduce inequalities
- Creating with the community / end users
- Evidence informed
And one of Urban Habitats’ approaches to health creation is to focus on five areas of:
- Creating health with communities
- Being active & physical activity
- Green space and connection with nature
- Getting it right at every scale.
So are these approaches relevant to the context of communities like the Afan Valley? A public health lens can help to reflect on this question. Health inequalities are manifest in the Afan Valley. In Cymmer for example healthy life expectancy is very low at 52 years for women and 49.6 years for men – these are some of the lowest healthy life expectancies in Wales. For comparison there are communities in Wales where this average is well over 70 for both sexes and the Wales average HLE is 62 (females) and 61.4 (males). It is unjust that people on average in Cymmer should experience 10 years less life in good health than even the average in Wales. As someone living in the area these figures, whilst averages, are a concern and seem to just be accepted as the norm without anyone doing much about them. There is opportunity for regeneration and redevelopment in the Afan Valley, and if co-created with the community, this area could benefit from increased prosperity and wellbeing.
Urban Habitats’ values are based on broad public health and community development principles. The practice’s vision talks about the need to positively value communities and provide space – both physical but also permission and agency – for them to shape their own future and pull on the resources to create health. In the context of the communities of the Afan Valley and how they are often negatively stereotyped, such approaches seem of value and importance. Co-creation for the wellbeing of this area would be advantageous.
Creating health with communities
People make the place. The pride and sense of spirit within the community embody this valley, creating a place of belonging and sense of home. Indeed it is the ambition and commitment to the regeneration of the valley that has made it what it is today. From the establishment of Glyncorrwg Ponds and the South Wales Miners Museum. This determination to create a space of enterprise and development for future generations has seen investment and progress, underpinned by active citizenship, community wellbeing really is the heart of this valley.
Being active & physical activity
The Afan Forest Park, including extensive mountain bike trails, is also a great addition for engagement in physical activity, especially for those living in the community. The park also attracts an amount of tourism to the area, allowing visitors to take in the natural environment. The area’s emergence into a premier destination for mountain biking and other outdoor activities is progressive.
There are a number of facilities that support physical activity in the community, which include a sports hall, bowling greens, football pitches and a community run indoor swimming pool[MD(1] . Not only does this promote good health from a young age with baby swim classes, but it provides a social meeting ground for members of the community.
The geography and location of the Afan Valley does result in many residents being car dependent to access local amenities. There are however options for local journeys to walk and cycle safely around the separate settlements. Cycleways and walkways are great way to travel through the Valley to include availability to walk to local schools.
In the Upper Afan Valley there are a range of active community groups, working to encourage the social wellbeing of the local area. The groups themselves spread across all age ranges for an inclusive approach to community wellbeing.
The local place of worship provides access to affordable food with the foodbank running their services from here. The local allotments provides the ability to grow health food, promoting social wellbeing and increasing productivity in the community.
Green space and connection with nature
Home to the Afan Forest Park, the valley boosts 11,000 hectares of safe and open public space to be explored. Most of this is woodland which is easily accessible from the waymarked walks, bridleways, and cycleways. Networks of bottom valley tracks include Sustrans route 887 [MD(3] which provides a great multi-user experience. There is an abundance of access to green and blue space nestled within the valley which makes this part of Wales a vibrant area for exploration.
Getting it right at every scale
This level of community engagement and determination for future regeneration can be admired in the wider context of Wales. Communities across other areas of Wales could benefit from utilising the open space and facilities around them. The inclusivity of the community is shown by the diversity of the facilities available in an attempt to cater for all needs.
In an attempt to link communities, works have been agreed to re-open the disused tunnel which will connect Afan Valley with the Rhondda. The aim is to create a safe, public cycle path promoting active travel and giving the tunnel a new lease of life.
The need for further regeneration is evident in this area, and the community commitment will be a great asset to this future. During my internship I attended Health City Design International where the vital need for a collaboration, community engagement, and building community agency when seeking to create health and wellbeing. This is as important for the Afan Valley as it is for global cities.
In conclusion, Urban Habitats’ approaches are relevant to creating health in communities such as the Afan Valley. Smaller, closely linked communities offer the ability to gather a wealth of information to give a personable approach to redevelopment plans. In future developments in the area, co-creation could potentially be a positive, by taking advantage of the high level of community spirit and the will to achieve the best outcome for their area.
The environment plays a very important and often overlooked role too, Urban Habitats has a passion for the health of the physical and the natural environment, and what is good for these spaces is often good for human health. Space around the community can be thought of as a public health or health creating resource where creativity and wellbeing – both for people and planet – can flourish.