Sophia Schuff, Project Manager, Gehl, and Jessica Attard, Portfolio Manager, Guy's and St Thomas' Charity
Jan 10, 2020
As Portfolio Manager at the Charity, I see the growing body of evidence linking poor health, including child obesity, with the built environment around us. Over the last few decades the number of fast food outlets in our South London boroughs has increased exponentially, and our streets have been designed with car users rather than pedestrians in mind. For too long the unhealthy option has been the easiest.
As part of our childhood obesity programme we’re exploring solutions that make the healthier option the default. We want every child to be able to run, play and access healthy food regardless of where they grow up.
We’ve partnered with Gehl, an international urban design practice, to explore local foodscapes - the intersection of food places, public life and public space. The focus has been on the urban streets of Southwark, where up to one in three year six children are obese.
One of the key take-aways for me has been how perfectly some elements, such as fast food outlets, are designed to attract young people. It made me realise how difficult it is for healthier options to compete for young people’s time and attention. Gehl's findings highlight that we need to work with these organisations if we want to make it easier for young people to be healthy, identifying practical changes we can make together.
Hear more from Sophia about how the built environment is shaping young people’s daily food experiences.
Unlike traditional urban design practices, at Gehl we use a people-first design process to understand how public spaces in cities cater for public life. In-depth knowledge of people's experiences allows us to identify challenges, produce qualified designs, and develop strategies to improve quality of life.
Our investigation into young people’s food habits in Southwark, London took place in two South London neighbourhoods, Camberwell Green and Peckham Rye. The aim has been to identify urban design interventions to address childhood obesity. While Camberwell and Peckham are close in distance and have similar demographics, their childhood excess weight rates are different. Camberwell Green has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the UK at 52% while Peckham Rye has a rate of 32%.
In June 2019, we collaborated with 16 local community researchers from The Social Innovation Partnership and 34 public life surveyors hired from Kaizen Partnership, to conduct a Foodscape Survey based on observational methods developed by Gehl over the last 50 years.
In Southwark’s Foodscape Survey our surveyors tracked public life behaviour and the quality of the public realm. This observational survey asked how people use their urban environments, how they socialise, what movement patterns they make, and the activities they engage in. We also observed how food places play a role in determining food habits among various demographic groups. To further qualify the observational data, the community researchers conducted over 400 qualitative on-site interviews with both adults and young people aged 6 – 16.
With the community researchers acting as facilitators we led a participatory engagement process with 22 local 12 – 16 year olds. When engaging young people in participatory design we use a model that involves walking tours led by them and workshops empowering them to create their own ‘daily route’ maps and visions for their ideal healthy neighbourhood. This approach not only gives participants the chance to show us first-hand what they experience in their daily lives, but it acts as a demystifying agent in myth busting our own assumptions about what they enjoy or not, giving a huge weight to the development of design concepts.
Experiencing the neighbourhoods from their perspective and learning more about the challenges they face in their urban environments was enlightening. By simply giving young people a space to share their experiences, some universal truths were uncovered about their behaviour and basic needs. Most significantly, that many problems with the food system are about so much more than food. The data collected through the Foodscape Survey paired with the input from workshops where local young people and stakeholders, such as Southwark Council members and Transport for London (TFL) staff, helped us develop initiatives to inform future strategic decisions on the impact of poor food options and limited civic spaces on young people.
The life and character of the street defines people’s foodscape experience
Transit hubs are hot spots for eating food with friends
Food places are acting as civic beacons
After spending time with local young people, we learned that they don’t always feel safe in their neighbourhoods and find that fast food places offer both safety and shelter. We have learned that for young people, unhealthy food may be a symptom of a larger problem. Therefore, in addition to the urgency of providing safe and welcoming places that serve fresh and healthy affordable food, the public realm must better serve people’s basic needs.
As a result of this project we’ve recommended the following improvements
Learn more about this partnership and the findings from the research.
If you’ve got ideas for taking forward these recommendations, get in touch with Jessica Attard
15 October, 2020
Sharon Bligh, Healthier Lives Director at The Consumer Goods Forum, shares lessons learnt from our collaboration to test in-store health initiatives.