by Michael Chang and Amy Outterside
4th September 2020

With 85 per cent of people wanting to permanently keep some of the changes in their personal and working lives experienced during COVID-19 (RSA, 2020), Michael Chang and Amy Outterside have collated widespread survey data on positive health and wellbeing habits in light of the pandemic, and discuss how we can translate these habits into the built environment.

Exercise habits

Spurred on by the initial lockdown rule of one outdoor activity a day, many found a revitalised appreciation for getting outside and moving more. A notable uptake of walking saw an increase from 59 per cent in the first week of the pandemic to 63 per cent in week six, with cycling rising from 8 per cent to 13 per cent respectively (Sports England, 2020). Whether it’s walking, cycling and/or exercising at home (45 per cent of people), 65 per cent of people agree that exercising is helping them manage their mental health.

Yet, whilst 27 per cent say they are getting more exercise than before, 36 per cent say they’re getting less (RSA, 2020). Sports England found that those aged 16–34 were engaging in the most activity per week, perhaps suggesting that those with families struggled to find time or capacity to exercise. Gym closures will have had an impact on autonomous and group activity, leaving one in seven people in search of an alternative space for regular exercise (Lange, 2019). Those without a garden turned to parks and shared green spaces, seemingly a viable option as 90 per cent of local authorities kept their parks open throughout lockdown (APSE, 2020). However, Ipsos MORI highlights significant spatial barriers to green spaces, with 33 per cent reporting struggling to access green space during lockdown (Ipsos, 2020).

Figure 1. Roadblocks in London

It is paramount to remove spatial barriers that impede access. Wide research demonstrates the association between green space and better health, and marked health inequalities related to income are less pronounced where there is access to green space (PHE, 2014). We need creative provision of green space and linkages in dense urban areas, such as roadblocks (figure 1) to encourage people to see streets as safe places to exercise.

Figure 2. Green corridors

The opportunity to capitalise upon newly formed habits for walking and cycling requires permanent change on the ground to promote a range of activities for all age groups, whether as a family or individually (figure 3). First and foremost, these changes should be reserved for communities living in high-rise city blocks with no gardens; no dense city space is too small for green linkages (figure 2).

Figure 3. Paris en Commun

Eating habits

Following the closure of restaurants and decrease in availability of fast food (particularly outside of the cities) many are adopting healthier eating habits. One survey found that 38 per cent of people are cooking more from scratch, which has perhaps contributed to 69 per cent of people wasting less food at home (RSA, 2020). The environment has also benefited, as 25 per cent of Londoners have been eating a more plant-based diet, reflected nationally by a 23 per cent overall increase in fruit and vegetable consumption (Food Foundation, 2020).

Proactive attempts to improve diets are often short lived. True to form, as restrictions on eating out were lifted there has been a notable shift towards purchasing food outside of the home. The ‘eat out to help out’ scheme is enough to tempt even the most robust newly formed habits, clocking 64 million meals over the past month (The Treasury, 2020). Although acknowledging a much-needed financial buffer for the hospitality industry, takeaway foods tend to contain high levels of fat, saturated fats, sugar, and salt, and lower levels of micronutrients and regular consumption of takeaway food over time has been linked to weight gain (Pereira et al, 2005). Throughout August anyone can get a Big Mac meal (1080 calories) for just £2.30. In times of financial insecurity, you can hardly argue against a struggling family of four buying dinner for £9.20.

Access plays a critical part in choice. Currently, one in four restaurants are fast-food outlets (PHE, 2018). By no means should planning for healthy food environments result in fewer options for those with little time and financial flexibility. Instead, increasing healthier options for the same price and time taken to prepare and consume recognises the root cause of obesity. The reality of working two minimum-wage jobs to support a family, with no financial flexibility for childcare or even a freezer for storage, must be considered and acted upon. The government’s recent obesity strategy to display calories and reduce advertising fails to recognise the socioeconomic barriers limiting choice. Cutting ‘buy one get one free’ deals on foods high in salt, sugar and fat, unless shifted to healthy meal equivalents, will do nothing but restrict choice for those with limited time and finances, catastrophically widening the health equity gap.

Local life

The pandemic has had a widely acknowledged impact on the ‘pace’ of daily life. At the height of lockdown, many reaped the benefits of feeling less rushed during the week. An ONS survey found that 50 per cent of people want to maintain their newly found slower pace, which is reflected in 37 per cent of people who feel like they have more time to relax (ONS, 2020).

One of the most altering spatial adaptions influencing this slower pace has been working from home (WFH). While receiving widespread popularity, only 24 per cent would like to WFH the majority of the time (ONS, 2020). An international survey found that the optimal model for the working week is currently split: 51 per cent of the time working from the office and the rest of the time from home (Adecco, 2020). A core driving factor behind WFH has been less time spent travelling, with 47 per cent hoping to keep this positive schedule adjustment.

Spending less time travelling represents the desire for more local centres. Through buying more locally, the corner shop saw the largest uptake during lockdown, with 23 per cent of people using this as their preferred source of groceries (YouGov, 2020). To sustain these environmentally favourable behaviour shifts, more needs to be done to ensure availability and variety of food, as one survey revealed 54 per cent of people have struggled to get basic food items outside of supermarkets (Ipsos, 2020). Engaging locally has built a stronger sense of community, enabling one in ten people to share shopping with their neighbour for the first time (RSA, 2020). Changes have contributed to 29 per cent of people valuing this contact with their neighbours and aiming to maintain this connectivity in the post-pandemic world (RSA, 2020: ONS, 2020).

As built environment professionals, we do not have sole influence over whether people work from home, shop locally or build relationships with their neighbours. We can, however, listen and translate the data as laid out above into design that supports a more local way of life by giving choice and flexibility. Firstly, we must look at individual capacity. Undersized homes are the norm in cities, even more so now with only 22 per cent of dwellings delivered through Permitted Development meeting national space standards (Clifford et al, 2020). The impact of limited space on mental health and wellbeing will only worsen as people spend more time at home. Secondly, we must look at community capacity outside of the home. Creating destination local centres with a variety of services and activities, complemented by vibrant public spaces for families to engage in active play will contribute to better community bonds.

We know the capacity for change is out there. The data has shown a willingness on the part of the public to change and to adopt new healthy habits when required to. Our built environment needs to increase access and make healthy options the first available choice for everyone. Spreading the practice of spatial planning public health across disciplines and sectors can help build a safer and more secure future for everyone.

Improving the practice of spatial planning public health will be the focus of a forthcoming book with authors Michael Chang, Liz Green and Carl Petrokofsky.

Michael Chang is a chartered town planner and honorary member of the Faculty of Public Health. He Visiting Fellow at the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments at the University of the West of England, and co-founder of the Health and Wellbeing in Planning Network.

Amy Outterside is an Urban Designer with a background in Planning. Currently undertaking an additional master’s in psychology, she writes widely on the topics of place-making and community building from an unwavering perspective of equal access to healthy lives.

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