How can knowledge and practice work in partnership to create a healthier society?

On this World Health Day, I would like to highlight and celebrate those professionals working at the interface of environment and public health to make health their everyday business. More than ever, in research and in practice, we are recognising and having a better understanding of the fact that our health and wellbeing is influenced by complex and interconnected factors. Therefore, the collective and collaborative roles of not just health professionals but of town planners, architects, transport planners and engineers are just as important now than ever. This is the essence of the UK Sustainable Development Goal 17 on partnership working and where multi-disciplinary connections and interactions can assist individual professional efforts in tackling the complex environment in which we live, work and play.

But if we have always understood the basic premise of the environmental drivers of people’s health and wellbeing, why has the impact in reality not quite materialised? Statistics paint a stark picture of poor health across the population with a range of indicators including life expectancy, obesity, mental health and air quality, which are exacerbated by widening health inequalities across population groups and neighbourhoods, and indeed nations. It is this complexity and interconnectedness that is proving more challenging to answer. So what do we have to do and by whom?

There is increasing and strengthening evidence on the implementation gap when it comes to interdisciplinary awareness of spatial planning and health. Based on evidence from the Town and Country Planning Association’s State of the Union and Reuniting Health with Planning project in England and Wales, the key barriers are silo-mentality across council departments and professions (54%) and team capacity and technical skills (43%). Similarly evidence from the Design Council’s 2018 Healthy Placemaking report found the barriers to be the requirements or expectations of other professional (73%) and insufficient time (64%).

Given the evidential implementation gap in terms of time, resources and priorities at the interface of planning, built environment and public health in local government, we are now seeing the rise of what I call ‘Public Health Planners’. These specific roles – mostly sitting in local authorities – will play an integral role in providing health and wellbeing input into all aspect of council services functions, including but not exclusively in planning, regeneration, housing and transportation. The primary objective is to improve the art and science of public health planning practice in order to meaningfully effect an upward trend in health improvement across the population.

It is with this inspiration that the Health and Wellbeing in Planning Network was established in 2018 to harness and sustain the critical mass of Public Health Planners across the UK and hopefully across the globe – little steps at a time. Though newly formed, the network is already strengthening engagement and connections among public health and urban planning practitioners by providing a platform where knowledge, experience and insights can be shared. For example the network will be holding a lunchtime fringe session at the Healthy City Design 2019 Congress in London to explore strategies and approaches to the practice of public health urban planning.

It is also reaching out to cement collaborations with organisations such as the Town and Country Planning Association, Faculty of Public Health, Salzburg Global Seminar, Women in Planning Network, and the SALUS Global knowledge community. In the USA, I am aware of the American Planning Association’s Plan4Health programme to support creative partnerships committed to increasing health equity through nutrition or physical activity. There is scope for greater partnership on Public Health Planning Practice across the Atlantic between UK, Europe and America, and certainly with the rest of the world with the World Health Organisation and UN-Habitat so we can all benefit from knowledge and practice exchange.

So, on this World Health Day we celebrate the spirit of collaboration in achieving shared visions of a healthier, just and equitable society. We remember the shared origins of healthy urbanisation in the unsustainable environments of Victorian Britain, such as poor housing, lack of green spaces, poor nutrition, air pollution and lack of natural daylight. I hope by highlighting emerging good practice, committed individuals can inspire the next generation of professionals and academics seeking to make a difference.

Michael Chang is a member of the advisory board for the Sustainable Cities gateway on our new open access platform Emerald Open Research. Emerald Open Research is a pioneering new platform for fast author-led publication and open peer review. You can find out more about the platform here.

Find out more here:

Design Council’s 2018 Healthy Placemaking report:

Health and Wellbeing in Planning Network:

Healthy City Design 2019 Congress:

Town and Country Planning Association:

Faculty of Public Health:

Salzburg Global Seminar:

Women in Planning Network:

SALUS Global Knowledge community:

Plan4Health programme:

Article Details

Michael Chang,
Co-founder of the Health and Wellbeing in Planning peer support network, Public Health England

Date Published:

April 5th, 2019


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