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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 1st October 2010
Advertisers use tricks to make us buy their products. They can appeal to our pockets by offering us supposed bargains, to our self-esteem by claiming to make us more beautiful or handsome, to our vanity by offering new fashions that we ‘must have’ and, more insidiously, perhaps, prey on our fears of ill-heath by suggesting that their products can prevent or overcome some potentially-serious medical problem.

High among the latter are those advertisements that play on our weight. Look through any women’s magazine and you’ll see many claims to help you ‘lose weight and keep it off.’ Some of these may well be effective; others may not. Yet all of them tap into a deep vein of worry, however obscure, that pulses through modern life.

This column is not usually concerned with medical matters, but recent trends in the planning of buildings and of urban spaces show that there is a link with health. There is a suggestion that we are looking in the wrong direction to cure our tendency to overweight.

The movement that links planning and health has been taken up most enthusiastically in New York, where 60 per cent of adults and 40 per cent of children are either obese or overweight. This means that they are at increased risk from diseases like diabetes, heart disease, ulcers and cancer. Medical intervention can help, of course, but can be expensive and have unwanted side-effects. Why not look at how lifestyles can be changed instead?

As one plank in a new structure of healthcare, New York has adopted ‘Active Design Guidelines’ for city planners and architects. The idea is to make subtle changes to the layout of streets and the provision of parking so that exercise is promoted and stress is reduced.

They draw a parallel between how the 19th-century fought infections diseases by better planning and how we can now fight obesity with the same weapons. In 1880 infectious disease accounted for 60 per cent of deaths in cities, not just in the US but in European cities, too. Within 60 years this was down to around 10 per cent – mostly achieved by improvements to sanitation (as was done by Bazalgette in London) linked with a better understanding of how disease was spread and making planning changes that made it less easy for infection to travel between houses and communities.

The same ideas are now at work to combat the lack of exercise. New York’s ‘Active Design Guidelines’ are designed to make the streets more attractive, to encourage the use of bicycles by providing dedicated cycleways and to promote calm spaces in the centre of the city. Parking is organised so that, unless you are disabled, you are encouraged to leave your car at some distance from your destination and walk to the office or the shops. Buildings have to be designed to encourage people to use stairs rather than lifts where possible.

The changes are already beginning to bear fruit. There is some evidence that people whose journey patterns have been changed and who take more exercise are healthier. Where traffic has been removed from streets and quiet and calm have been restored, the reclaimed spaces are full of people walking or sitting, taking advantage of the tranquillity.

These changes have an impact on stress levels and on mental health as well as on physical health. They also change the way people shop, making it easier for them to reach the shops and encouraging them to spend more time there. This, of course, has the knock-on effect of bringing the community closer together.

Forty years ago the car was king – city centres were often ruthlessly cut through to enable traffic to flow more easily; you have only to visit Birmingham to see what a disaster such a policy made, relegating pedestrians to shadowy underpasses and vertiginous bridges, while the vehicles roared through the city centre.

Ripon has not been immune. The bypass was a good move; some have argued that Marshall Way is not. Yet even here the tide is turning, and, though Ripon is not New York, the initiatives being taken there, and elsewhere, do have lessons for us. It is possible to use the planning process to make our city centre a more enjoyable and less stressful place.

As architect Sir Terry Farrell, campaigning in London for better planning for pedestrians, has said, ‘We need to make walking a joy.’ That means we should be removing traffic from the city centre, removing barriers to walking, and providing calm, quiet spaces for people to relax, to shop and to socialise. Even in a small city like Ripon – or, you may argue, especially in a small city like Ripon – this can be done. Let’s get on with it. We could yet beat New York at its own game – and improve our health as we do it!

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