Urban city with park opposite

New tool to value the health impacts of urban developments

Researchers make it easier for planners to synthesise and evaluate the health risks of urban development
30 March 2023 , Steve Smethurst

Tool makes it possible to assess how variables such as buildings, transport and natural environment in new developments might impact residents' health.

A spreadsheet-based tool to evaluate the health effects of urban development proposals has been announced by researchers at the Universities of Bristol and Bath, and the associated research paper published in Frontiers in Public Health.

The tool assesses a range of factors including how buildings, transport, natural environment, socio-economics and community infrastructure in new developments might improve or worsen health for its future residents.

By integrating environmental economics with public health analysis, researchers were able to value the potential health effects that could result from development proposals and provide evidence to assess the health costs of urban planning.

The associated paper, 'Developing and testing an environmental economics approach to the valuation and application of urban health externalities', highlights that air pollution, lack of access to green spaces, low availability of healthy food and drink, and inactive lifestyles all contribute to non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as obesity, diabetes, respiratory illness, anxiety and depression. Together these NCDs make up 89% of deaths in the UK, most of which are seen as preventable.

“How does a new urban park compare to retrofitting insulation for a single neighbourhood in terms of changes to health risks, and how many people could be affected?”

University of Bath researcher Eleanor Eaton is lead author of the paper. She said: “There is so much data out there on how the environment around the home can affect health, but it can be hard for planners to anticipate the magnitude of effect for an individual site, or to compare multiple health impacts across alternative options.

“For example, how does a new urban park compare to retrofitting insulation for a single neighbourhood in terms of changes to health risks, and how many people could actually be affected?

“Accessing data for this kind of task can be time consuming and findings from other locations can be difficult to interpret. We wanted to create a resource which synthesises the evidence to give planners data on existing health risks and what could happen as a result of environmental change.

“We hope that the model will make it easier to understand what changes could be made which would have the most benefits for the community.”

Co-author Daniel Black from Tackling Root Causes Upstream of Unhealthy Urban Development (TRUUD) at the Population Health Sciences Department, University of Bristol said he expected ‘considerable support’ for the development of valuation mechanisms.

“There are significant uncertainties that require nuanced understanding and interpretation, but decision-makers are aware of this and are still supportive. If done right, these valuations could provide a vital sense of scale of a hitherto unrecognised problem or solution,” he said.

David Carr, Lead Scientific Officer at Dacorum Borough Council and member of the CIEH Environmental Protection Advisory Panel, said he welcomed the development. “It highlights the importance in having an integrated approach that appropriately considers the public health effects of urban planning decisions.

“CIEH has been promoting the need for such an integrated approach with respect to urban development as part of the Office for Health Inequalities and Disparities Planning Reform and Health Working Group.”


Image credit: Shutterstock

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