A healthy environment

Barton’s (2005) health map, shown in Chapter 1, shows a conceptual anthropocentric model of a healthy ecosystem, with people’s health and wellbeing at the centre of seven spheres:

  • • global ecosystem - climate change, biodiversity
  • • natural environment - natural habitats, air, water, land
  • • built environment - buildings, places, streets, routes
  • • activities - working, shopping, moving, living, playing, learning
  • • local economy - wealth creation, finance markets
  • • community - social capital, social networks
  • • lifestyle - activity, diet, substance use

These are interacting spheres and all seven need to be considered when designing a healthy environment.

Thinking point:

Considering each of the seven spheres, what are the challenges to creating a healthy environment?

Environmental stewardship

Environmental stewardship means conserving, protecting and restoring natural ecosystems and their biodiversity. In England, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) works closely with the administrations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and acts on behalf of the UK on international matters. It is responsible for food, air and water along with safeguarding the natural environment. It works with agencies and statutory bodies to care for forestry, nature and water supplies to protect the environment and ensure its sustainability. This includes developing land that can cope with excessive flood waters, forestry management or enabling access for education.


The concept of sustainability recognises that the natural systems on earth, the ecosystems, are interconnected and resources are finite. There is concern that the way people are using the earth’s resources is leading to a deterioration of the natural environment. This is fast reaching an ecological ‘tipping point’ which will make it harder for all living things to survive (Koons, 2012). Biodiversity, a variety of plants and animals, is vital for maintaining healthy ecosystems. For biodiversity to thrive, it requires clean air, soil and water and, in turn, these supply the nourishment needed by all living things. As these become disrupted or depleted, the ecosystems become imbalanced, and eventually clean air, soil, water, and then food, land security and energy become scarce. Human conflicts are likely to erupt over highly prized commodities and inequalities in health will widen.

Perhaps the most well recognised definition of sustainability is from the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

(Bruntland 1987 p.41)

This report recognises that as the planet becomes more populated we place increased burdens upon it. Its ability to support the essential needs and living standards of people, especially those in developing economies, is at risk. Human economic activities, and activities which relate to how we live, often impact directly and negatively upon the environment. Therefore, sustainable development is about how humans can interact with the environment in new ways which maintain healthy ecosystems and life on earth is both equitable and peaceful.

Three pillars of sustainability

Sustainability is a global challenge for everyone. Since the 1980s there has been international consensus that any intended planned action needs to take into consideration its impact on society, the economy and the environment. These ‘three pillars of sustainability’ are visually presented as circles or pillars (Purvis et al., 2018).

The ‘three pillars’ concept was embedded into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which makes clear that sustainable initiatives must balance the need to foster social equity among and between communities, with the need to provide economic opportunities such as employment, and the need to protect the natural environment (UN, 2015b). This requires people to make complex decisions. Examples of sustainable initiatives include active travel, ‘think global act local’ and environmental stewardship.

Three pillars of sustainability

Figure 2.6 Three pillars of sustainability

52 Tristi Brownett and Joanne Cairns Active travel

Active travel means replacing motorised transport with human activated travel, such as walking, cycling or scooting, which produce fewer air pollutants, less traffic congestion and fewer road traffic accidents (PHE, 2016). Active travel reduces sedentary behaviour, which is linked to a range of physical health conditions including obesity, and it has also been found to increase social contact and improve mental health (PHE, 2016).

‘Think global act local’

Think global act local’ is a sustainability mantra, adopted from the environmental movements of the late 1960s, that encourages individuals and corporations to consider the global impact of their actions. For individuals, it means to recycle, reuse, repair, share, or restore objects to cut down on the number of items produced and subsequently discarded, because this helps sustainable growth. For businesses, it means taking ‘corporate social responsibility’ for the impact of their activities on the community and environment. This includes reducing the amount of greenhouse gases that their activities produce, otherwise known as their ‘carbon footprint’; introducing an ethical supply chain which means ensuring fair wages, having responsible employment practices; and ensuring that raw materials are ‘responsibly sourced’, meaning that they are not being grown, produced or made, in a way that has a negative impact on the planet.

Sustainable development goals

The United Nations (2015b) set out the 17 sustainable development goals in their 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These aim to tackle climate change,

Sustainable development goals Source

Figure 2.7 Sustainable development goals Source: ALX1618/Shutterstock.com

Table 2.4 Sustainable development goals


No poverty

End poverty in all its forms everywhere


Zero hunger

End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture


Good health and wellbeing

Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all



Quality education

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all


Gender equality

Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls


Clean water and sanitation

Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all


Affordable and clean energy

Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all


Decent work and economic growth

Promote sustained inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all


Industry, innovation and infrastructure

Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation


Reduced inequalities

Reduce inequality within and among countries


Sustainable cities

Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable


Responsible consumption and production

Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns


Climate action

Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts


Life below water

Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development


Life on land

Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss


Peace, justice and strong institutions

Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels


Partnerships for the goals

Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development

Source: Adapted from UN (2015b p. 14).

reduce poverty and deprivation, improve health, education, and economic growth, and reduce inequalities.

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