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Unprincipled moves: Is World Health Day worth celebrating?

Posted by on April 19th, 2022 · Government, Wellbeing

By Susan Thompson, Norma Shankie-Williams and Danny Wiggins. Originally published by The Fifth Estate for World Health Day (7 April).

Our physical environment is central to our health. So with the NSW government dumping the D&P SEPP, is there much to celebrate this World Health Day?

We celebrate and affirm many important causes and programs during the year, but did you know that today (7 April) is World Health Day? . While significant global health challenges are always addressed, this year’s theme embraces both the health and wellbeing of people and their planet. The World Health Organization has declared that it will “focus global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy and foster a movement to create societies focused on well-being”.? 

Colleagues in urban planning and public health are excited to see acknowledgment of this integrated thinking and call for immediate action. We are no doubt joined by Australian communities ravaged by the recent floods and those devastated by the latest round of catastrophic fires in early 2020. This year’s World Health Day follows close behind the release of the sixth IPCC report into climate change.  Hoesung Lee, the IPCC chair, declared the report to be “a dire warning about the consequences of inaction [showing] that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet”. 

While joined-up policy, practice and action on health is well overdue, calls for it to happen have been around for decades. For some this goes back to the early 1970s when designers Rittel and Webber identified “wicked problems” – those incredibly tricky, sticky and infinitely intertwined issues that defy simplistic understanding and are not fixed with linear and singular focused solutions. The crises of climate change, physical inactivity and unhealthy eating are classic wicked problems – examples of complex challenges that have not been resolved by traditional siloed approaches emanating from single government departments. 

For other stakeholders, particularly those in public health, advocating for integrated policy and practice is very much associated with the mid 1980’s declaration of the Ottawa Charter.  This acknowledges that maintaining good health from infancy to old age is complex and dependent on many factors outside the individual, well beyond the scope of medical and surgical interventions. Systems thinking has also been influential in laying the groundwork for the integration of urban planning and public health.  

These integrated ways of understanding have laid the foundations for much of the work that is now embodied under the rubric of healthy planning. In NSW, mirroring national and international movements, urban planners and public health professionals have enthusiastically embraced healthy planning principles and practices. Together, we have progressed our understanding of how the built environment – the places where we live, work, enjoy recreation and travel in between – can best support human health and wellbeing as part of their everyday activities.  And, more recently, we have realised that a health supportive environment is dependent on a healthy and sustainable planet – the theme of World Health Day.

And it’s not just professionals.  Communities too have wholeheartedly welcomed the advantages of walkable neighbourhoods that are safe and attractive, with abundant and easily accessible local open space and enhanced community connections.  The pandemic has served to reinforce just how important this is.

As a result, we enthusiastically greeted the recent initiatives of the NSW Government, including:

  • the close relationship between state-level planning and the Government Architect NSW and the wealth of detailed guidance to all levels of government and all environmental and cultural-types.  For example, the recently published Urban Design Guidelines and Connecting with Country (a framework for developing connections with Country that can inform the planning, design and delivery of built environment projects in NSW).
  • the draft Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy (D&P SEPP), with legislative authority, accompanied by the draft urban design guidelines and requiring consideration of such urban design, energy efficiency and place-specific matters for significant development proposals.

Underpinning these initiatives is the fundamental notion, introduced by the former Minister for Planning Rob Stokes to nominate best practice principles to integrate and synthesise strategic planning and development assessment systems (December 2021). Of particular note:

  • delivering well-designed places that enhance quality of life and the economy
  • maintaining development within environmental limits and assessing climate change impact, flood and fire risk
  • providing well-designed and located transport and infrastructure integrated with land use
  • delivering a sufficient supply of safe, diverse and affordable housing
  • growing a competitive and resilient economy that is adaptive, innovative and delivers jobs

Surely there’s no argument with the importance of such priorities as we progress the planning system into the 21st Century? Well there is: the current Minister for Planning abandoned the Planning Principles just before axing the draft Design and Place SEPP earlier this week.  

The wholesale trashing of the planning principles shows a lack of support by the state government for principles-based planning and, by default (and some intent), continued reliance on the prescriptive, place-blind approach abandoned internationally over the last few decades. In the previous minister’s words, to “move from compliance to creativity”. 

The eight policy focus areas underpinning the planning principles formed the titles and grouping of the consolidation of 42 state environmental planning policies (SEPPs) into eight. The foundations have been undermined. What is arguably worse is that the draft D&P SEPP has now been axed. Gone are the improved residential apartment guidelines and in jeopardy are building sustainability provisions. Unaffected by all of these actions is the Complying Development SEPP (especially the fast track, prescriptive housing standards). Ready-made for the new Minister for Homes (and Planning). 

The peak body for local councils has expressed dismay: “The decision to overturn a suite of nine recently introduced sustainable planning principles does nothing to reassure communities that the government has its sights on the long-term health and wellbeing of our citizens,” Local Government NSW president Darriea Turley told the Sydney Morning Herald. And further: “How long can we deceive ourselves into thinking that high-risk housing is affordable housing?” Indeed, is a home affordable if it comes with the immediate and longer term economic, health and social costs of commuting hours every day to jobs located far away, living beyond a short walk or cycle to reach reliable public transport or near to cooling green spaces or shady tree canopy? And how can diverse community needs be met if there is no diversity of housing options?

It’s critical that we protest the unravelling of these integrated and innovative guidelines and principles.  We propose a short manifesto titled: “Healthy places for people and planet”.  Here are our 10 core principles (not in any particular order) for the creation of places that support the health of people and planet, reinforcing the priorities that need to be at the heart of planning today: 

  1. healthy places celebrate and respectfully honour their history – Indigenous and post-colonial history – this gives people a sense of belonging which underpins mental health and wellbeing 
  2. healthy places are where people love to be
  3. healthy places are easy to get around on foot – the pedestrian comes first, then bikes, then public transport and last, the car
  4. healthy places support safe and enjoyable cycling for commuting and recreation 
  5. healthy places cool a heating world – this is achieved in part by the provision of tree canopy, light coloured surfaces and roof tops 
  6. healthy places are green with the provision of excellent quality and sufficient amounts of green space 
  7. healthy places are blue – quality water bodies provide co-benefits for human and planetary health 
  8. healthy places are accessible for everyone – they embrace child to age friendly city principles
  9. healthy places are safe for everyone – feeling and being safe is fundamental to a health supportive place 
  10.  healthy places are created by teams of committed and like-minded professionals from multiple disciplines across the built environment, sustainability, health and community building

Integrated policy and practice in urban planning cannot be abandoned by the NSW government. We have to find a way to join together (practitioners, developers and communities) to create health supportive places on a healthy planet for everyone. A reason to celebrate World Health Day and planning in NSW.

The Healthy Planning Expert Working Group (HPEWG) is an independent NSW based group, comprising healthy planning experts from the academic, planning, health, local and state government sectors. The group originally formed in 2012 and sees its role as one of advocacy and provision of expert advice. The HPEWG’s vision is that built environments should be planned, designed, developed and managed to promote and protect health for all people.

Susan Thompson is a professor of planning at UNSW’s City Futures Research Centre and a member of the HPEWG. Norma Shankie-Williams is an urban planner and chair of HPEWG. Danny Wiggins is an urban Planner and member of HPEWG.

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