Does Your Town Make You Sick?

Phil Prentice, Chief Officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, reflects on the correlations between health and place in Scotland’s towns.

What image does your mind conjure up when you think of Copenhagen, Vancouver, Melbourne, Amsterdam, Vienna or Monte Carlo? Modern city living, sustainable communities, engaging cultures. Yes, all of the above…and they are all also the same names that often feature in the top 10 healthiest cities to live in the world. These endless surveys measure intangibles such as Creativity, Liveability and Quality alongside tangibles such as Amenities, Cost and Pollution. But what do they tell us about the realities of living in Barrhead or Kirkcaldy? Aside from a luxury break or a once in a lifetime holiday, just how many of us will ever get the chance to live in these cities, and would it make a difference to our life chances or indeed life expectancy.

A recent report by the World Health Organisation stated that the average life expectancy for a male born in Calton, Glasgow was 54. In India the figure is 63 and in Lenzie, the figure is 82, which just happens to be the current UK average. Work by Sir Harry Burns over the last few years has shone an important light and drawn strong correlations between health and place; however these issues are complex and are still to be fully explored and understood.

However, that said, the evidence is sufficient and robust enough to suggest that nicer places tend to have healthier people and that the built and natural environment is a very important factor in the health of the surrounding resident population.

Define nicer.

Nice house, nice town centre, nice people, nice life. As opposed to damp and cramped tenement, a dirty and neglected town centre, sick unemployed neighbours and no hope.

The most powerful word in all of the preceding words and imagery….hope.

Sir Harry and others can talk much more eloquently than I about all of the above, but hopefully I can provide a few ideas around solutions.

At Scotland’s Towns Partnership we have spent the past year building new collaborations and trying to knit the whole towns agenda together. Scotland is a nation of towns, but the town narrative is less well articulated that cities. Towns have suffered and their transformation has stalled. The promise of a networked urban system, with choices, to support an increasingly diverse society has not yet been met. Yet our towns are a living legacy of our history and culture, even the most cynical amongst us will have an emotional attachment to their home town or village, a childhood memory, a sense of pride and identity, we acknowledge their famous sons and daughters, it’s who we are, part of our fabric and DNA.

Our towns are not homogenous and whilst some are doing well, many are at a crossroads. The continued drift of talent and youth to city economies, structural changes in retail where we use tablets, online, click and collect, out of town and destination shops, the ongoing impact of the economic recession, dysfunctional property and housing markets, welfare reform, less disposable local income and a fast shrinking public sector.

So if no one is coming Towns need to do most of this for themselves, whether through a BID, Development Trust or a loose collaborative of the willing. Get together and agree on what a nicer place could be, start believing in your combined strength. This is your problem and only you have the solutions. Base your investment decisions on evidence, make a plan that is achievable and realistic, be resilient but also ambitious, understand what your key assets are, your unique tale, embrace the town centre first principle and best practice and look at building the widest possible partnerships. Start talking to other towns to see how they are coping. Explore how tourism, digital, public services, retail, commercial, health and greenspace, housing, leisure, transport, museums and attractions, events and marketing can all help build better places. Success will come from better public-private-third sector working and more joined up community planning partnership decision making. It will also improve community and with that, our health.

Phil Prentice, Chief Officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership.