Time to think big: planning for healthy communities

It’s February already, if you can believe it. If you spent January bundled up in woollen layers and sitting cosy on the sofa, you’re not alone. Many of us make new years’ resolutions that focus on wellbeing, whether it’s exercising more or steering clear of unhealthy habits. And yet, by February 80% of us have abandoned our resolutions.

It’s never too late to look after your wellbeing so this month, we’re looking for inspiration and great examples of how places and spaces can help us to maintain the wellbeing agenda that we set ourselves back in January!

Whether your new years’ resolutions are still going strong, or they need re-invigorating, we have cast our net wide to find some game changing, innovative examples of places that are going the extra mile.

Thinking outside the box

For us, the most inspiring places are those that think outside the box. Places that make the maximum impact for the minimal land take. Designs that turn spaces that would otherwise be lost into something really valuable.

Here are just a few examples that have inspired us.

Making our buildings healthy: Venlo City Hall

In the Netherland, Venlo’s city hall has been designed with the core focus on improving the health of its users. In every aspect, the building’s design has sought to achieve a “cradle to cradle” approach, creating a building that has a positive footprint, adding value for people, the environment and business.

A green façade connects to a greenhouse, which acts as a pair of green lungs, filtering particulates and purifying the air. This, along with using non-toxic materials, has already had a tangible effect on workers’ health and therefore the city hall’s bottom line: after just one year, employees are more productive, having taken 2% fewer sick days.

Venlo City Hall, Netherlands

Rethinking our communities: Sällbo shared housing project

Challenging the status quo of traditional households, this Swedish housing experiment in collective living creates cross-generational interaction between the old and the young.

Half the tenants are under the age of 25, and the rest are pensioners. Tenants sign up to spend at least two hours a week with one another in “togetherness” areas, designed to promote interactions and everyone.

Loneliness is something that both age groups typically struggle with and bringing the generations together has shown huge improvements in wellbeing.

Maximising the impact of spaces: Vox and Vittoria Studios

We love Glenbrook’s Vox building in Manchester’s Castlefield for how it maximises space to enhance wellbeing. The £70m build-to-rent scheme project has transformed a disused industrial site in Castlefield, Manchester, into a highly-sustainable development. Utilising the roof space, the building offers residents a high-quality recreational space, including a 130 metre running track, with stunning views of the city. The impressive rate at which apartments were let (even during the pandemic) shows how much added value the facilities brought to the project.

Vittoria Studios, Peel L&P’s latest residential proposal submitted at Wirral Waters also adopts this mindset. It’s a 15-minute neighbourhood that incorporates roof gardens for residents plus a multi-functional linear park along its length. When consented, Pioneer Park will provide a modern urban park creating a series of connected ‘active’ zones positioned along Its length. The ‘active’ zones include elements such as a cycle hub, exercise points, mixed play spaces, and seating.  Active travel has been an integral design concept, enhancing connections to the wider regeneration area.

Artist’s impression of Vittoria Studios. Credit: Parkinson Inc.

What are the components for success?

Connectivity and movement

Healthy places encourage movement. Whether it’s to exercise or to get from A to B, well-designed places will encourage its residents and users to choose active travel.

Of course, we all know that removing the dominance of the car is the precursor to other meaningful design interventions. Well-designed places actively deter car use and encourage walking, cycling and public transport options.


Places that accommodate a wide range of uses, appealing to many different users provide a sense of security by ensuring use throughout the day and week. The Bridgewater Canal encapsulates this theory example, with commuting cyclists, dog walkers and a variety of watersports sharing the same space and creating an animated place and critical mass to support food and beverage uses along its length.

Access to nature

After a straw poll across the team, we quickly saw a trend in our favourite places: access to nature. It’s not a coincidence; it’s the way humans are wired. It doesn’t really matter if it’s man-made (like a canal or reservoir) or natural (like the Peak District). Interacting with nature is good for the soul.

It’s especially important within urban environments. Major investment into a publicly-accessible green space accelerates economic growth. The improvement works we secured last year at Pennington Flash will draw in more visitors and increase vital revenue for important ecological work at the site.

Human interaction and playfulness

And, perhaps most importantly, they’re places where people can linger, interact and, in slowing down, have the opportunity for play.

We love how Mayfield Park in Manchester embraces fun. In an era where health and safety can stifle innovation, Mayfield Park’s over-the-water slide seems to have captured the imagination of children and grownups alike. The developer, U+I, chose to deliver the green space before the surrounding buildings. It’s a remarkable space which will add value of the commercial plots when they come to market.

US urban design company, Better Block, transforms underutilised car parks and scraps of lands into active plazas, bringing life and play into previously unsafe spaces and bringing communities together. Closer to home, temporary creative spaces, such as the sand pit at the Great Northern Warehouse in Manchester, often end up staying in perpetuity, offering invaluable opportunities for interaction and play.

Credit: Better Block

We must think BIG

So, how can places and spaces help us maintain our wellbeing? By giving us opportunity to connect and move, giving us access to nature and giving us a sense of playfulness.

But to achieve it, we must think BIG.

Thinking “big” doesn’t just come down to quantum. You don’t need a lot of space to deliver high value for users.

Thinking big is about thinking outside the box; looking for opportunities to deliver quality, vehicle-free, nature-filled spaces that deliver an experience. Thinking big means maximising the use of space and pushing the envelope to achieve spaces where people will thrive. Thinking big on healthy spaces doesn’t come at the expense of financial success. It will actually boost it. When wellbeing is prioritised in placemaking, all three strands of sustainable development can be better met.

You need a planning consultant who understands the value of great placemaking, and how this will help your planning – and financial – case. Let us help you make the most of your site.