Healthy Happy Places – the threat of climate change on health and wellbeing

15th March 2022

Our Healthy Happy Places programme aims to create healthy, sustainable places, as well as the wider Public Health agenda around inequalities and prevention.

Timothy Crawshaw, President of the Royal Town Planning Institute, writes his first blog on behalf of the programme, reflecting on the COP26 conference and the recurrent theme of the threat of climate change on health and wellbeing. Tim explains how this is closely linked to the aims of Healthy Happy Places and presents research evidencing the impact of the climate emergency on poor health and wellbeing outcomes, leading to inequalities.

COP26 mainly focussed on the existential threat of climate change and this looms large and was the main thrust of the conference. However, from both a campaigning and core issues standpoint health and wellbeing is a constant recurring theme. Whether this be issues of air quality, not just in emerging economies but also much closer to home; road traffic accidents and the impact that these have on travel behaviours and human tragedy; to more subtle matters such as walkable neighbourhoods and local food production, health and wellbeing is at once the reason and a significant benefit of climate action. Add to this the feelings of helplessness that we can all encounter when faced with the climate emergency and the possible catalyst of self-organisation, responsibility and social change that could form part of the solution, mental wellbeing, as well as physical survival is the new frontier.

The work of the Healthy Happy Places programme is closely related to the Climate Emergency and either as a co-benefit, or through projects delivered with climate change in mind, health and wellbeing is a core theme that must not be lost. As the programme develops it is becoming increasingly clear that achieving our objectives is closely related to tackling inequalities and exposure to climate risks, such as flooding, high summer temperatures and extreme weather events.

The Environment Agency report “Social deprivation and the likelihood of flooding” (2021)[1] states that:

  • There is an inequality in terms of social deprivation and flood risk exposure from all sources of flooding
  • Deprived coastal communities still experience significant inequalities for high and medium likelihood of flooding.

Inequality is identified as also being more pronounced in rural areas, as these are often less defended than urban areas. It is of note that the benefits of investing in flood management areas has had a positive effect in the most deprived areas, although there is much do in coastal communities where the incidence of poor mental health is typically high[2]. The links between flood risk and poor mental health are well understood and Public Health England (PHE) has published guidance[3] from 2014 outlining the consequences.

The urban heat island effect (UHI) is also closely correlated with deprivation and inequalities[4]. Whilst it is well attested that UHI and heatwaves contribute to excess summer deaths and research is pointing towards another source of fuel poverty in terms of staying cool,[5] there are also pressing concerns for mental health. Research published in 2018[6] by Cambridge University Press concludes that there is increased risk of suicide during hot weather, with a one degree rise over 18 degrees centigrade resulting in a 3.8-5% increase in suicide.

The causes of the urban heat island effect and increased exposure to heat stress in deprived areas is based on a combination of factors, including poor quality dense housing, a lack of tree cover and insufficient greenspace. The incidence of ‘tree equity’ – or the number of trees a neighbourhood has, can be correlated against income levels and the consequences of little or no tree cover increases climate risks from high summer temperatures[7]. This type of understanding needs to be rolled out widely across our neighbourhoods correlating climate-based risks, poverty, and deprivation to inform policy and interventions to support mental wellbeing and tackle inequalities.

This nexus of climate change, poor health and wellbeing outcomes and inequalities are interlocking themes that need to be addressed urgently and there is evidence that investment in deprived areas in flood defences has had a positive impact, although a full cost benefit analysis is required. This is just one example of where climate change mitigation can deliver multiple benefits to society, strengthening the case for investment if this could be both articulated and catalysed. At Healthy Happy Places we are looking to secure multiple stacked benefits for communities that use nature-based solutions to support wellbeing and reduce climate risks.

Timothy Crawshaw is President of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI),  International Planning and Development Consultant at Crawshaw Urban Design, and Chair of Tees Valley Nature Partnership. He is working in partnership with AHSN NENC Programme Manager, Dr Rachel Turnbull, and the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care Service (ICS) to deliver the Healthy Happy Places programme.


[1]  Environment Agency – Social deprivation and the likelihood of flooding

[2] Chief Medical Officer’s Annual Report 2021 – Health in Coastal Communities 

[3]Flooding and mental health: Essential information for front-line responders

[4] Disproportionately higher exposure to urban heat in lower-income neighbourhoods: a multi-city perspective

[5]  Assessing population vulnerability towards summer energy poverty: Case studies of Madrid and London

[6] Relationship between daily suicide counts and temperature in England and Wales

[7] Urban Heat Island Impacted By Tree Equity