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Spatial Planning for Health: An evidence resource for planning and designing healthier places

The built and natural environment is a key environmental determinant of health and wellbeing. In this report ‘built and natural environment’ refers to the characteristics (objective and subjective) of a physical environment in which people live, work and play, including: schools, workplaces, homes, communities, parks/recreation areas, green (ie visible grass, trees and other vegetation) and blue spaces (ie visible water).

Built environment and health

The linkages between health and the built and natural environment have long been established and the role of the environment in shaping the social, economic and environmental circumstances that determine health is increasingly recognised and understood.

An ever-increasing body of research indicates that the environment in which we live is inextricably linked to our health across the life course. For example, the design of our neighbourhoods can influence physical activity levels, travel patterns, social connectivity, mental and physical health and wellbeing outcomes.

However, it is important to recognise that the causal links between built environment and health are often complex, in that they are influenced by numerous, sometimes conflicting, factors.

Although it is difficult to quantify, with precision, the impact of the built and natural environment on health, research does seem to consistently report that the majority of our health outcomes are explained by factors other than healthcare (Kuznetsova, 2012; McGuinness, Williams-Russo & Knickman, 2002).

To aid understanding of the built and natural environment and health, Barton and Grant (2006), drawing upon the work of Dahlgren and Whitehead (1991), devised the Health Map (Figure 1). The map is focused on the role of neighbourhood and planning, and emphasises the importance of the built and natural environment’s contribution to health and wellbeing outcomes, in line with the socio-ecological approach to health (Orme et al., 2010).