• Thomson Reuters Foundation


Contrary to popular belief, busy city centers beat suburban living when it comes to human wellbeing, as socializing 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 opportunity, we can build well-designed communities, and in the long term, you have made a big difference in health outcomes,” coauthor Chinmoy Sarkar said.

“With evidence, we can plan multifunctional, attractive neighborhoods 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, an assistant professor at UHK, said policies and planning need 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 neighborhoods near highways, 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 — are healthier than this, but lag 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 400,000 residents of cities — including London, Glasgow and Cardiff — and found the best health came in areas with more than 32 homes per hectare, the average density for new building in Britain.

This level, typical of developments of standalone semi-detached suburban houses, is less than a quarter of the density of Georgian terraces of London’s desirable Islington and Notting Hill neighborhoods.

Sarkar called into question British polices — such as laws to restrict suburban houses from dividing their plots and filling in more homes in gardens — which have sought to preserve suburbia’s open and emptier spaces.

In January, the government announced it will build 17 new towns and villages across the country in a bid to ease a chronic housing shortage. But Sarkar said policy makers should think again before building on green fields.

Despite spiraling house prices and government targets to build 1 million homes by 2020, Britain’s restrictive planning system has prevented high-density urban development due to fears that it will lead to high-rise, low-quality blocks of apartments, according to a government paper released in February.

London remains one of Europe’s most sparsely populated major cities, with less than half the density of Madrid, Barcelona and Paris, and below the level of Milan, Berlin and Rome.

The paper urged local authorities to reverse their long-standing opposition to built-up residential areas by highlighting London’s mansion blocks and terraced streets, all of which encourage a strong sense of neighborhood.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May said the government will lend £2 billion ($2.6 billion)to local government authorities to build 25,000 homes for rental in the social housing sector, which desperately needs new properties.

The government will invest a further £10 billion ($13.1 billion) in a scheme that aims to boost home ownership by helping people buy a new-build home with only a small deposit.

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