New indicators explore the impact of the urban environment on people’s health

Pilot projects were undertaken in a number of city locations around the world, including the London Borough of Southwark

New metrics that might better inform development and urban planning have been published by the building science organisation BRE. The BRE Healthy Cities Index (HCI) and BRE Causal Pathways Framework appear to provide a demonstrable basis upon which built environment companies can make a measurable impact on urban health.

The research has demonstrated that indicators and associated materials can inform city government practitioners, and frame discussions about urban health challenges and potential policy solutions.

Led by Helen Pineo (Associate Director – Cities, at BRE), the five-year project has captured 58 evidence-informed indicators across 10 categories, such as air quality, housing and buildings, noise pollution, safety and security, and transport in 20 global cities. They included London, Los Angeles and Dubai. Pilot projects were undertaken in the London Borough of Southwark as well as in the UAE capital.

Ms Pineo said: “The BRE HCI and Causal Pathways Framework help explain the link between urban and built environment exposures and health outcomes. Cities can use the framework to trace the impact of policy and design decisions to wellbeing outcomes. The Causal Pathways Framework, for example, has the capability to drill down into specific challenges such as air quality, and examine the interconnected elements of the built environment that contribute to air pollution which require action from multiple public and private sector stakeholders.”

Air pollution remains a major problem in the UK despite a reduction in emissions since 1990. In February 2017, the UK was issued a warning from the European Commission for failing to address repeated breaches of air pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in 16 cities including London, Glasgow and Leeds. Each year in the UK, around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution.

While measuring such urban health indicators as air pollution shines a light on the importance of the issue, it does not provide evidence to support solutions nor which sectors are best-placed to act. Therein, the principle motivation for the BRE research stemmed from the understanding that improving urban health can’t be achieved by the health sector alone and built environment professionals have an important role to play.

Dubai Land Department supported the premise and funded a portion of the project. BRE convened a series of stakeholder summits and workshops as part of Index development and piloting. In London, the stakeholders found the BRE Causal Pathways Framework provided a simple overview of complex urban health issues to kick-start discussions about policy interventions and monitoring mechanisms.

Simon Bevan, Director of Planning, Southwark Council, said: “As a public authority making decisions about urban planning in a challenging political environment we want to show that we are basing decisions on evidence and being transparent about the decision-making process. Choosing indicators and regularly monitoring performance against them should, therefore, be central to all that we do.”

Real-life situations where the BRE HCI and Causal Pathways Framework findings might be applied include the development of new large-scale developments or urban planning policies. Health and wellbeing factors are increasingly recognised as a key part of urban design, particularly in relation to increasing opportunities for physical activity and healthy eating.

At the building scale, the BRE Biophilic Office Project is currently exploring the parameters of health and wellbeing inputs across a range of factors – including light, noise, colour, access to fresh air – to deliver better outcomes. The Biophilic Office initiative, supported by Interface and several industry partners, working alongside architectural-designer and TV presenter Oliver Heath, will report its initial findings in 2019-2020.

BRE, through its market leading BREEAM suite of sustainability assessment schemes, prioritises health and well-being aspects. BREEAM is utilised by clients globally to understand their sustainability requirements, improve performance and to certify their masterplanning projects, infrastructure and buildings. Last year, BRE and WELL announced they would work together to drive out best practice, continual improvement and with the interest of both the environment and people at its heart.

Ms Pineo said: “Our research outputs provide thought leadership and can be used practically to inform urban design and planning projects. It’s important to note, though, we don’t intend the BRE HCI and Causal Pathways Framework to be used for local policy-making on their own; rather we hope they will raise awareness amongst key city officials and politicians to initiate more detailed local data gathering and policy development.”

More information about BRE Healthy Cities Index is available here.