Holistic Health and Urban Planning: Visualising Impact with the Healthy Cities Generator

What does a holistic approach to health look like? Often, people’s replies will cover medical care, diet, and exercise – but as urban populations continue to accelerate, urban planning is increasingly recognised as a pillar of holistic health.

Connecting health and urban planning

To connect the dots between health and urban planning, professionals need tools to help them visualise the impact of their plans and see how small adjustments could make a big difference to the lives of local people. The Healthy Cities Generator (HCG) is a hands-on, practical planning tool designed to give actionable indicators for anyone looking to integrate health into planning. This cutting-edge resource is led by a team originating from the Healthy Cities Network – Marta Rofin Serra, award-winning architect from the City of Vic; Dr. Sebastiaan van Herk, Director of Environment at Bax & Company; and Amber de la Haye, Science Communications Consultant at Bax & Company.

In efforts to develop and hone the HCG, the team recently met with experts to define a holistic approach to urban planning as a health generator. This roundtable included Brigit Staatsen, an environmental epidemiologist with the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM); Marcus Grant, an urbanist working with WHO Healthy Cities European region and UN Habitat; Laura Valdes, a research and policy officer at Metropolis; and Pamela Carbajal, an architect and urban planner with UN Habitat.


What can the Healthy Cities Generator offer?

There is overwhelming scientific evidence showing how urban design affects health. Despite this, health and planning are too rarely considered in tandem. The HCG aims to bridge the gap between ´what we know´ and ´what we do´ by making it easy for urban planners and policy makers to incorporate health factors into urban planning and urban factors into health policy.


Healthy Cities Tools

The roundtable experts noted that if a planner wants to centre health today, they need to choose between applying a complex, intensive framework like the UN Site Specific Assessment, or selecting simple tools that only touch on a single driver of health – like the Propensity to Cycle Tool.

We need to make the process simple, while integrating all aspects of health into all stages of planning. In the sea of tools that are either limited in depth and scope or significantly complex, the HCG lands in the middle – a comprehensive approach considering many indicators, but lacking jargon and easy to use by citizens and planners alike.

As a tool with two entry points of health and planning, the HCG is useful for both creating a plan based on desired health outcomes and evaluating a proposed plan. The UN Habitat’s Sourcebook for health in urban planning states the importance of a tool with two entry points, but has yet to add one to their repertoire. Thus, the HCG would fill this and a number of other gaps in the Sourcebook.

Based on a systematic review of scientific peer-reviewed publications linking urban determinants and their impact on health, the HCG automatically calculates the health impact of urban planning actions. Combining these science driven insights with a lean, easy to use interactive interface, the tool provides unique support to decision makers, planners and health professionals. 

Through the Healthy Cities Network, 9 European cities are successfully applying the prototype to evaluate their action plans for urban design.

How can the roundtable experts contribute?

As the tool grows and expands to new regions, expert guidance will be more important than ever.

Going forward, a central focus is adjusting the HCG’s scoring methods to best fit unique scenarios, and the roundtable experts have many insights into scoring for internationally-used tools. As Pamela Carbajal highlighted, when defining the values of indicators for a region a participatory process is essential. Locals understand their regions and cities best and will be more likely to use a tool that is tailored to their needs, so a scoring method without their input would be incomplete. 

Marcus Grant reiterated the importance of a participatory scoring process. To aid in shaping this, he shared a paper of his titled “No weighting for healthy sustainable local planning: evaluation of a participatory appraisal tool for rationality and inclusivity”, originally published in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.

Beginning in Europe and ultimately expanding outward, participation from a variety of cities is fundamental to the HCG’s scoring and development. Experts like Laura Valdes are key for reaching cities working on urban health as Metropolis has built an extensive network with frontrunners in the field.

A second focal point for the HCG’s development is maintaining the tool once it is fully launched. Brigit Staatsen reflected that she has seen useful tools come and go due to a lack of planning for future support, losing years of hard work in the process. To avoid such a loss with the HCG, the team is exploring an array of options to make this tool sustainable in the long-term.

The future of the Healthy Cities Generator

Guidance from these experts and their organisations is central to the future of the HCG, which is why subsequent meetings and collaborations are already in the works. A second roundtable of experts will take place this September to evaluate the tool’s progress and explore opportunities for development.

This tool holds much potential to scale up and serve urban planners across regions – but to take the tool to the next level we need your help. If you are interested in learning more, co-developing, testing, or using the tool, get in touch with one of our experts.

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