Interview: Kevin Fenton on London, well being and creating more healthy locations


The capital’s passionate health chief is drawing on lessons learned during the pandemic and working to apply them across the built environment

There is arguably no one better informed about the integration of location, health and well-being in the capital than Professor Kevin Fenton, Director of the London Region of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities and Statutory Health Adviser to the Greater London Authority.

His previous tenure at Southwark Council gave him the experience he brings to his current role. As Executive Director of Place and Wellbeing in a neighborhood undergoing significant regeneration – think Elephant & Castle and London Bridge – he has had the opportunity to explore, test and learn how the design of places impacts health and wellbeing.

When asked to share his three key takeaways from that period, he first describes the “untapped opportunities” he has unlocked within local government to integrate place and health, and describes the “dividends being generated” for all stakeholders in regeneration when local communities are connected and cohesive.

He then uses concrete examples to describe how the design of places affects the health of local residents. Access to healthy food, clean air, green and blue spaces are now recognized and accepted as determinants of health which, when unequally distributed, manifest themselves in health inequalities.

But perhaps the most knowledge has been gained through working directly with local people. “The design of places cannot happen without the input and involvement of local communities,” he says, noting that community engagement has historically been “transactional.” But if there’s a more holistic approach instead – one that respects past, present and future – new places can foster connectivity and cohesion that support health and well-being.

Fenton commends Lendlease’s work at Elephant and Castle for continually developing work programs to involve community members in every phase of the regeneration program. He acknowledges that while he was in Southwark he had limited opportunities to create the necessary structures for data collection and analysis, but hopes to be able to do so in the future Redevelopment projects throughout the capital in his town hall work.

Entering the mayoralty early in the pandemic brought with it new and unforeseen challenges and opportunities. Fenton likens this time to running a laboratory with repeated opportunities to generate hypotheses and test interventions and to collaborate with others as part of the process. He points to relationships being built between businesses, colleges and the NHS to keep Londoners healthy and safe during the Covid period and says they have had a real impact and in tackling the challenges of the post-pandemic world must be used to the full, particularly in view of the capital’s health inequalities.

During the pandemic, a Health in All Policies approach has been built into all programs in the Mayor’s Office. Fenton cites his collaboration with Transport for London as a prime example of strategies developed during the pandemic that led to broader thinking about public health. These include promoting walking and cycling within the TfL network and public messages. Indeed, the London Assembly’s announcement this week that TfL intends to provide information about public toilets within the network on the TfL app suggests that the focus has been successfully embedded.

Fenton had much to say about how national, local and private stakeholders in planning and recovery could help improve health. At the national level, he calls for legislation to support a sustainable housing stock that offers sustainability in a changing climate and in an aging society. At a local level, he wants to see buildings that integrate people with nature, with access to blue and green open spaces that support good health.

He wants developers to take a different approach to how we think about the meaning and even the concept of heritage – seeing it as a framework to integrate community experiences into what is being built something NIMBYs cite to block new developments. It forms a contrast to the health sector where community groups are seen as essential to the definition and delivery of services under the newly defined integrated systems of care, and names several things that, in his experience, have led to better engagement.

Gathering local data creates an opportunity to refine the quality and quantity of interactions between everyone involved in regeneration programs, he says, adding that community groups, which are often volunteers, appreciate help and recognition for their activities. They may be provided with resources that encourage engagement with community groups in a way that, as Fenton puts it, “is not episodic but evolves and evolves as the development process progresses.”

Dedicated engagement teams can provide event programs for local residents, reaching all ages and those at risk. Partnering with local schools to get children involved in rejuvenating their communities, and with advocacy organizations like Age UK, and providing pop-up spaces for local charities and businesses are all approaches Fenton has found effective.

As evidence of widespread recognition of the challenges of creating and maintaining healthy places, the World Health Organization, together with Bloomberg Philanthropies, cites the Partnership for Healthy Cities Summit. Sadiq Khan will host his inaugural meeting in Marchwhich will include members of the Partnership for Healthy Cities, a global network of more than 70 cities founded in 2017 dedicated to reducing non-communicable diseases and injuries.

Fenton, a thoughtful and passionate advocate for better health and promoting it in the built environment and across all policies, thinks this is an exciting initiative and an opportunity to show how London is tackling health and health equity in the post-pandemic era.

This is an edited version of an article originally published by Listen to Locals.

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