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Town planning, architecture and public health will never be the same again

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For too long what housebuilders and developers have offered has paid scant regard for people’s wellbeing in good times and sanctuary in bad. It’s time to change all that, says public health expert John Ashton

Prof john ashton

Prof john ashton

Professor John Ashton

Four months into the Covid-19 pandemic, with the country in a continuing state of paralysis and fear, and realistic estimates of the final death toll from the virus heading towards 100,000, it is time to take stock of the implications for our future way of life.

Historical accounts of previous global disruptions from epidemics, ranging from the plague in the Middle Ages to Victorian cholera and the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 indicate that their social and political consequences may be wide-ranging and unpredictable. This message will almost certainly have implications for the perennial triplets of town planning, architecture and public health. 

The evolution of the functional approach to town planning associated with Ebenezer Howard and the garden city movement at the turn of the 20th century, and the later development of housing standards that were associated with Parker Morris in 1961 (abandoned by the Thatcher administration in 1980), had their roots in the recognition of the impact of slum housing and pollution on the predisposition to epidemic disease.

The subsequent focus on bricks and mortar with no understanding of the importance of providing real homes in which people and families can thrive physically and mentally has been highlighted by the current pandemic and not least by the necessity for a lockdown, which has impacted most on the most disadvantaged.

At its most stark this has been associated with much higher death rates among those living in overcrowded and unsatisfactory accommodation with shared facilities and no access to green space and active exercise opportunities. Now must be the time for a new vision of healthy housing and communities with standards laid down in law. Among the issues that these should address should be:

  • Housing density – safe neighbourhoods that facilitate and support community cohesion with access to local green areas; a modal shift in personal transport provision towards walking and cycling, with spacious provision to ensure optimal opportunities for including physical activity into daily routine as part of a war on obesity, which is now understood to be a specific risk factor for poor outcomes in coronavirus epidemics.
  • Housing that properly meets the needs for sustainable construction and lifetime and family living, and more normalised home working, with adequate personal space for privacy and that anticipates the requirement for flexibility in the event of the need for individuals to isolate in times of infectious disease.
  • The optimisation of sunlight and ventilation through the orientation of housing with generous provision of balconies, together with the use of high-specification modular construction allowing for adaptable use of room spaces. Attention must be paid to passive biosecurity as a defence against within-household contagion, using technology to minimise the possibility of germ spread via fomites (objects which can transfer disease), fixtures and fittings.

For too long we have accepted that what is on offer in the housing market is driven by what builders and developers are prepared to offer with scant regard for the importance of providing safe places for people to live a full life and to thrive and as a place of sanctuary in good and bad times. We now have an opportunity to reset the dial. Let us not miss our chance.

I acknowledge the contribution of Maggi Morris in the thinking behind this article.

John Ashton is a public health expert and former regional director of public health for north-west England

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Readers' comments (1)

  • they almost certainly will be the same, rightly or wrongly. yes the pandemic has shown up some stark differences, particularly around access to green open space but i don't expect anything to change. that will require long term thinking and social push from many fronts not a reaction to last few weeks

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