Peter’s Perpective | City scourges

Design once helped to solve disease in London, and our columnist says that architecture and planning can fix today’s city scourges…

Architecture and planning have enjoyed a close relationship with plague and pestilence throughout history. The fetid, overcrowded existence in the medieval city encouraged disease. Nineteenth century problems of foul water that spread cholera, rickets and damp accommodation were pretty much solved by improvements in the way we built our city. We generally have clean water, well-lit and ventilated homes; so what’s going wrong now?

The shocking level of deaths of cyclists and pedestrians caused by cars and trucks? Let’s stop these by better planning and road layout. The effects of pollution? Get rid of the internal combustion engine altogether. The biggest plague of today that can be ameliorated by the design of buildings and planning of cities is obesity and type 2 diabetes. This eats up some 10 per cent of the NHS budget; we are catching up on the US where the cost to the economy is around £180 billion.

In New York architects led the way in looking at design that helped people lead healthier lives using ‘Active Design Guidelines’. Clerkenwellbased architect Grimshaw’s Manhattan office designed one of the first buildings guided by these principles. The 200-home Via Verde project in the Bronx encourages people to walk and to use stairs; it’s planned to reduce car usage and there are plenty of facilities for exercise.

The Design Council in London is now borrowing the NYC techniques to encourage more active design and have been working with developers Derwent London (Morelands and the White Collar Factory on Old Street; Buckley Building at Clerkenwell Green) to design buildings to help people use them more actively – like not hiding stairs in service cores where no one can find them!

Peter Murray is Chairman of NLA: London’s Centre for the Built Environment