Better town planning now can reduce future obesity

  1. Last week I was in a meeting to hear evidence from the Campaign for Better Transport about the importance of getting town planning right to support sustainable travel.
  2. This weekend I have been in Eastleigh, going door to door delivering leaflets for the Lib Dems in the by-election for a new MP.
  3. Today’s lead article in The Guardian was that the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges says serious action is needed to stop the number of overweight people in the UK from growing yet further.

What connects these three points?

Derby planners are currently deciding the priorities for the ‘publication’ version of the city’s new local plan.  What this says will affect how convenient ‘active travel’ is in Derby in the future.  In Eastleigh I visited unfamiliar streets and houses.  I noted how some were much friendlier for walking, and some better for driving.  There are contrasting examples like this in every town and city – but I (and others?) somehow look at them differently when they are new to us.

If, from your front door…

  • you have to walk past the car – or in some cases squeeze past the car – to reach the street, or
  • the path from the front door goes to the garage and not to the pavement or in the direction you want to go,

…then there is a greater temptation to take the car keys out of your pocket and drive.  And sitting behind the wheel, doesn’t provide the exercise needed to help fight the obesity explosion that is so worrying the doctors.

Similarly, if your bicycle has nowhere to live but the shed at the bottom of the garden, it is likely to stay there… but if there is room by the back door, or maybe in the garage, for it – you’ll be more likely to use it.  When I was young we had a really large porch – like a mini-conservatory – by the front door.  It was big enough for all five family bicycles.  Brilliant!

If it’s easy for people to walk out of their front door and onto the street, they are more likely to continue on foot, or by bicycle, to the local shop – or bus stop.  But it’s not just the house that matters.  The roads and paths nearby, the positions of bus stops and availability of cycle parking and bus shelters, and how well all this is maintained, also makes a difference.  These can also be affected by the council’s Local Plan.

And then we must think about how else people are influenced.  Once the house layout works, and the roads nearby are friendly, what else is needed?


Walking and cycling routes may well be different to the routes one would drive.  It may not be obvious where to lock one’s bicycle, or if there is anywhere to leave wet coats or umbrellas.  And to catch the bus it’s good to know when and where it goes, what it’ll cost – and how to get home.

It’s been shown that just providing this sort of information in a personalised way means that some people change their travel choices.  It opens up possibilities.

People changing to these more sustainable modes doesn’t just mean fewer cars on the road, with shorter queues and less pollution.  It also means that people are building exercise into their daily lives – vital if, like me, they feel too busy to go to the gym or out jogging.

As people start down this virtuous circle, there are more bus passengers, so bus companies can provide more buses.  As the numbers of walkers and cyclists increase, each one becomes safer – as drivers look out more for them.  The more these facilities are demanded, the more the council will be willing to provide them. 

What’s more, people using these modes can talk to one another, meaning that people get to know their neighbours and this gives communities a chance to strengthen.

So there we have it; plan the town for sustainable travel and the number of obese people should reduce.  Too simple?  Well, I’d say it’s a better long term solution than the headline 20% tax on fizzy drinks!

If you’d like this thinking in the next Local Plan in Derby (or wherever you live), then tell the council planners.  Be part of the lobby for a sustainable future – let them know that not everyone wants to be ruled by cars.  And let me know too!



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