Can a village really make you healthy?

December 20, 2007

Can a village really make you healthy?

By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

The government is keen to see a series of healthy towns set up to combat the UK’s growing obesity problem.

Ministers say we should learn from places in Finland and France, but a Buckinghamshire village has also been pioneering the approach.

Signposts in Fairford Leys
The signposts have been designed for cyclists not motorists

You only need to look at the signposts in Fairford Leys to see that it is different.

The blue signs may seem fairly normal on first glance.

But they have actually been designed for cyclists, giving details on the time it takes to various landmarks.

It is just one of many initiatives aimed at encouraging the residents in the 1,900-home village to live healthy lives.

Nestled on the outskirts of Aylesbury, Fairford Leys has been built over the last 10 years on what was farmland owned by the Ernest Cook Trust, a charity set up to promote the well-being of communities.

When selling the land to developers, the trust set down strict criteria saying how it should be designed.

It covers every aspect of the village from the Victorian-style lamp-posts to the colour of railings.


It means that if residents even want to change the style of their windows they have to apply for permission.

But the restrictions have also ensured the developers built what today would be considered a "healthy town".

Indeed, encouraging healthy lifestyles was one of the main aims of the 1989 masterplan, which stressed the need to create a place where the "motor car was not allowed to dominate".

My oldest is always out on his bike with his friends and once my youngest two are older I will use the cycle routes
Ann-Marie Jones, resident

Guy Greaves, an adviser to Ernest Cook for the past 17 years, said: "The idea was to create a sustainable community.

"We wanted people to be active so while we accommodated the car, the village has actually been designed so that it is easier to walk or cycle round than drive."

That has been achieved by avoiding the cul-de-sacs and dead ends so common in towns up-and-down the country.

Instead, paths and cycle routes criss-cross the village, allowing easy, direct access to the local amenities, while motorists have to wind round the residential streets.

The village also boasts countless playgrounds, a skate-park and health centre.

There is even a sports pavilion surrounded by pitches, which is home to Fairford’s three under 17 football teams – a remarkable number for a village of its size.


And the design certainly seems to have had the desired effect.

Fairford Leys was praised in a recent report by the Commission for the Built Environment, a government advisory body, for creating a healthy community.

Experts said the design was "likely to promote the higher levels of daily physical activity across the whole spectrum of residents, from children to the elderly".

Council officers Anne James and John Byrne
The council is planning to build more "healthy communities"

And local residents support this view.

Ann-Marie Jones, a young mother of three who moved to Fairford Leys in 2001, said: "I find it very time consuming using the car trying to find parking spaces and then having to unload children.

"It is just much easier to walk or bus.

"My oldest is always out on his bike with his friends and once my youngest two are older I will use the cycle routes."

And Andy Pohler, 40, who has lived in the village for the last seven years and runs the Fairford Leys website, added: "Fairford Leys is a fantastic place to live. At the weekend, you see lots of children outside playing outside.

"It is important to create that sort of feel because it does encourage people to be healthy.


Buoyed by the success of Fairford Leys, Aylesbury District Council, in partnership with Buckinghamshire County Council, is planning to create other "healthy communities".

Building work is already starting on a development to the north of Aylesbury and the council also has its sights on another plot to the south.

A path in Fairford Leys
It is often easier to walk around the village than drive
John Byrne, head of planning at Aylesbury Council, said: "The idea of creating a healthy environment is in fashion now, but it was unheard of when Fairford Leys was being planned in the 1980s.

"Ernest Cook was 10 years ahead of its time really. As a landowner they were able to lay down stipulations that local authorities couldn’t.

"Nowadays the climate has changed.

"It is now being recognised that we should be trying to prevent ill-health, rather than just providing facilities to treat people when they are broken.

"And good planning can play a key role in that."

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