Forget the suburbs, big city life’s better for your health
London: Contrary to popular belief, busy city centres beat suburban living when it comes to human wellbeing, as socialising and walking make for happier, healthier people, according to a new report.
Downtown residents — packed together in tight row houses or apartment blocks — are more active and socially engaged than people who live in the sprawl of suburbia, according to a report that aims to challenge popular beliefs about city life. Its authors said their findings should encourage politicians to promote the benefits of built-up city living.
“If we can convince policy makers that this is a public health op- portunity, we can build well-designed communities, and in the long term, you have made a big difference in health outcomes,” its coauthor Chinmoy Sarkar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“With evidence, we can plan multi-functional, attractive neighbourhoods that promote physical activity, promote social interaction, and shield from negatives, such as pollution and feeling unsafe.”
The study - by Oxford University and the University of Hong Kong (UHK) - showed that in 22 British cities, people living in built-up residential areas had lower levels of obesity and exercised more than residents in scattered, suburban homes.
“As cities get more and more compact, they become more walkable. In denser residential areas, they are better designed and more attractive destinations. We are less dependent on our cars and use public transport more,” he said.
Sarkar, assistant professor at UHK, said policies and planning needed to catch up with the data, rather than relying on urban myths about what makes cities work.
The study showed that areas of suburban sprawl with about 18 homes per hectare - such as poorly designed neighbourhoods near motorways, where driving is the only option - had the greatest rates of obesity and lowest rates of exercise.
Suburban areas with few homes - often privileged communities with big gardens and open spaces - were healthier than this, but lagged behind the most densely populated areas in inner cities.
Walking makes the biggest difference, said Sarkar, and social interaction and physical activity thrive best in compact communities. The study compared more than 4,00,000 residents of cities - including London, Glasgow, and Cardiff - and found the best health came in areas with more than 32 homes per hectare.