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James Cracknell: Health and wellbeing is central to planning for better places

James Cracknell MPhil OBE achieved a stellar career rowing for Great Britain –winning 2 Olympic gold medals and 6 World Championships. James sat on the Sustainability Committee of LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games). He currently works at Curve as a Sustainability and Wellbeing Consultant where he works with teams and clients to advise on occupational health issues that can promote and maintain the health and wellbeing of employees.


The link between planning and sustainability has been well-understood since the end of the last century by a select group in the development/building sector. At a time when the rest of the country’s population (myself included) probably hadn’t heard of or understood the meaning of sustainability.  The link between how well-planned places can improve people’s health and well-being came later to the building industry and although people appreciate and enjoy the physical and mental benefits of a well-developed urban environment, we don’t equate that to planning. Surely planning is all about dormer windows?

How planning and sustainability played a significant part in London winning the right to host the Olympic Games and for people to enjoy the living in the legacy after is a little harder to discern.

I sat on LOCOG’s Sustainability Committee. London was awarded the right to host the Games in 2005 at which time it was evident that the planning, sustainability and legacy of the Olympic Park’s in both Sydney and Athens (2000 and 2004 Olympic cities respectively) had failed. The residential building in Homebush (Sydney’s Olympic Park) were still largely uninhabited, the 2011 census revealed only 65 residents, which had only grown to 1,736 five years later in 2016.  A similar situation existed in Athens where much of their Olympic Park including the residential buildings that was the Athletes’ Village and a number of the stadia were already dilapidated by 2005.

The IOC (International Olympic Committee) were adamant this would not happen in 2012 and as part of the London Olympic bid team we knew that the British press would vigorously hold us to account. 

Lord Seb Coe effectively mandated that the lens of sustainability was applied to everything LOCOG delivered. Thus every project had to come through our committee, which was a very forward thinking approach. Putting sustainability front and centre of Olympic delivery was ground-breaking.  A decade on from the flame being extinguished at the London Games sustainability like carbon footprint is now part of our lexicon, but how many development projects examine every aspect through the lens of sustainability.

It proved, in many ways, that sustainability was not an additional concern to delivery but a central element of it.

Olympic parks are essentially towns, which need to be planned with the same detail and considerations. If you can deliver sustainability in Stratford you can do it anywhere be that Rio or Tokyo or towns throughout our country. We are beginning to see this take hold and the ideas I first came across at LOCOG are well/becoming embedded with planners in the UK.

Sustainability and climate resilience runs through planning like a golden thread.

For myself and many of us on the committee Olympic legacy wasn’t about producing Olympians in 2042 but to inspire/enable people to live more healthy active lives. 

In aiming for sustainability planners are capable of adapting their work to make better places, and I feel that this approach can and must be taken to health and well-being.

I don’t doubt that this is a key consideration for most planners. But, in speaking to various groups I know that providing a sport centre, or swimming pool may not be the best solution.

There are unseen barriers to entry for exercise, which don’t always match our desires. For many people a sports centre may be a difficult place to reach, perhaps needing a car, or more importantly they may not feel comfortable in that space. The key issue here is making sure that the places people live provide the spaces and areas for people to take exercise. The starting point for making the most of life let alone partaking in sport is being physically healthy. 

We have to live in environments which encourage this. It is human nature to take the path of least resistance. Two statistics sum this up in startling detail.  During a year only 20% of the UK’s population walk a mile continuously once a year. Which means 80% of the population don’t walk continuously for 20 minutes in a year.

An equally worrying statistic is that 51% of school children living within 400 metres of their school get driven. What habits are we building into the next generation?

In the past we seem to have understood this. London’s Royal Parks or even Central Park in New York provided green space and easy access for people to walk, run, cycle and stay active without any barriers. Even some of our old industrial heritage can provide spaces for people to stay active. Tow paths on canals make excellent walking or running routes.

If we can provide easy access to places where physical activity is easy, or from the doorstep of most homes, I think we can tackle these two issues at the same time. Healthy green places where people can take physical activity are more than likely to provide sustainable environments as well.

If we can get this right then a new generation will have an environment in which exercise and training is as easy as stepping out of the door and who knows, we may be encouraging the Olympic champions of the future and more importantly a healthier, happier society.


The RTPI runs a CPD Masterclass on ‘Planning for Public Health and Wellbeing’ each year. Please find the upcoming dates of this masterclass in the CPD Training Calendar.

If you have any question relating to CPD training, please email: [email protected]



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