Can Cities be Good for You?

Cities are critical sites both for enquiry and action in relation to health and well-being. With almost 70 per cent of the world’s population estimated to be living in urban areas by 20501, global health will be determined increasingly in cities. Yet while urbanisation has thus far generally been accompanied by many basic health improvements, today’s cities currently provide some of the worst as well as some of the best environments for health.

It is with these trends in mind that LSE Cities has embarked on a new research initiative on ‘Cities, Health and Well-being’, using the 2011 Urban Age conference in Hong Kong as a platform to promote further research and exchange over the coming years. This article has three objectives. Firstly, to provide an overview of the key issues relating the physical environment to health and well-being in cities by reviewing the literature and communicating some of the most developed understandings of healthy cities. Secondly, to provide a road map of some of the major contributions from experts in cities, health and well-being from around the world to this year’s Urban Age initiative. And thirdly, to begin to set out the parameters for a framework of enquiry for future research into how cities can be designed and planned for greater urban health and well-being.

Are cities healthy?

The potential of cities to outperform the national average in wealth creation and productivity is mirrored in health. Overall, there does seem to be a health benefit to living in cities: analysis of WHO data from 90 countries shows that infant mortality rates are typically lower amongst urban populations than rural populations within individual nations2. Analysis of the 41 low- and middle-income countries for which urban Demographic and Health Survey data is available shows that the proportion of children under five that are stunted – an indication of chronic malnutrition – is 1.5 times higher in rural than urban areas3. However, recent research has shown that while urbanisation is associated with income, there does seem to be an additional advantage associated with living in cities.4

At one level, the reasons are self-evident. Part of the apparent ‘urban health advantage’ reflects the wealth that cities concentrate and produce: today, 600 cities generate 60 per cent of global GDP despite accounting for just one fifth of the world’s population.5 Cities also tend to concentrate doctors, hospitals and other health infrastructures, and provide the economies of scale necessary to support health-supporting infrastructures such as water, sanitation and drainage, as well as education and health services.6 The proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel is 2.2 times higher in urban than rural areas on average7 and the proportion of one year olds vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus, toxoid and pertussis (DTP3) is 1.3 times higher in urban than rural areas.8 Cities’ health services are not just a resource for urban citizens: they also serve rural populations in their immediate vicinity and beyond.

Compared to our knowledge of the health of rural and urban populations within nations, however, our understanding of the relative health of individual cities is much less well developed. A study coordinated by Victor Rodwin at New York University compares the health performance of London, New York, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong, summarised in his article on health in Hong Kong, stands out as a detailed comparison of five world cities but there has been no international comparison of health in cities that extends to all world regions. And while health is included within various international quality of life and ‘livability’ indices, these tend to be orientated towards the needs of businesses and investors, rather than the health and well-being of residents themselves.9

The lack of internationally comparable city-level health data stems from the tendency of international agencies to collect demographic and health data at a national level, through nationally representative samples that tend not to be large enough to allow for spatial disaggregation. Internationally comparable city-level data would not only improve our understanding of the health benefits and risks experienced by urban citizens, but also provide a powerful resource for urban policy-makers and politicians. To this end, LSE Cities has developed an internationally comparable health index for 129 extended metropolitan regions, using a range of available data, including infant mortality and life expectancy. The preliminary findings are set out in pp. 10–13, and the full methodology and points for discussion are explained at

Can cities damage your health?

Most rural versus urban and city-to-city health comparisons tell us nothing about the distribution of health within cities. In fact, the resources and associated health benefits that cities concentrate are not shared evenly amongst their residents.11 As Ernestina Coast explains in her article, the urban poor are less likely to be included in censuses and surveys, and where they are, data is often aggregated spatially, masking the significant health differentials that exist within cities. The 828 million people estimated to be living in informal settlements in the developing world in 201012 face multiple health risks from birth. Poor housing, lack of infrastructure and access to basic services leave residents of informal settlements (and particularly children) vulnerable to communicable diseases, such as respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses, malaria and accidents and injuries.13 Analysis of WHO data from 154 countries shows that the percentage of the population living in urban slum conditions is inversely associated with infant mortality, independent of the urbanisation of the country or its income.14 Areas of concentrated disadvantage seem to have worse health outcomes irrespective of the level of development.15

Analysis from the African Population and Health Research Centre, based on 1999 data, shows that children living in Nairobi, Kenya, are less likely to die before the age of five than in Kenya as a whole (under-five mortality rate of 61 per 1,000 births, compared to 112 per 1,000 births), but the children of Nairobi’s informal settlements are more likely to do so (151 per 1,000 births).16 At the same time, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as stroke, cancer and diabetes are increasing amongst low-income urban residents, creating a cruel ‘double-burden’ of disease.17 NCDs can, therefore, no longer accurately be considered to be diseases of the rich, whether in towns or the countryside, and it is estimated that by 2020, they will be responsible for 69 per cent of all deaths in low- and middle-income countries.18 In the case of Accra, Ghana, and São Paulo, Brazil, detailed analysis of health outcomes across the two cities showed that more people died of both circulatory diseases and infectious/parasitic diseases in the most deprived zones than the least deprived zones (see Table 1).19 Road traffic accidents and violence are other growing global health threats, responsible for 1.3 million and 1.6 million deaths respectively each year,20 compounding the urban poor’s double burden of infectious and parasitic disease and NCDs into a ‘triple-burden’.21 Finally, mental health disorders make up an increasing proportion of global disease burden: unipolar depression is the third leading cause of disease worldwide, and is high even in low-income countries (eighth place, compared to first place for middle- and high-income countries),22 and are particularly prevalent in cities, as Mazda Adli demonstrates in his piece on urban stress and mental health.

Urban health inequalities also exist in rich countries, although they are usually more extreme and felt by a greater proportion of the urban population in poorer countries. In London, the inequalities that existed between the (poor) east and the (rich) west in the late nineteenth century, as documented by Charles Booth in his surveys into life and labour in London, are clearly visible today. For example, at 82.4 years, while female life expectancy in London is slightly higher than the average for England of 81.8 years, it is significantly lower in Newham, inner east London, at 79.8 years.23 London’s health inequalities are directly related to its socioeconomic inequalities, which are concentrated spatially in specific boroughs and neighbourhoods. As Stephen O’Brien writes in his essay, ‘there needs to be a revolutionary attack on health inequalities in east London and it needs to begin now’.

In Hong Kong, despite the significant reductions in child mortality achieved over the past 30 years, higher rates are spatially concentrated in particular parts of the New Territories. Analysis from LSE Cities explored in detail on pp. 36–9, shows that in these areas, for example, child mortality is between 17 and 35 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to an average of four for Hong Kong as a whole. The spatial variation in health performance closely mirrors the distribution of deprivation in Hong Kong: Hong Kong’s 20 per cent most deprived areas have child mortality rates 3 times the Hong Kong average. Such patterns are also found in other health indicators in Hong Kong. As Paul Yip explains in ‘Disconnection in a highly connected city’, suicide rates in Hong Kong’s newly developed satellite towns in the north and northwestern districts are 16 to 25 per cent higher than in Hong Kong on average. Yet such areas provide far from the worse living conditions in Hong Kong. The Society for Community Organization bring life to the statistic that some 80,000 people in Hong Kong live in woefully inadequate conditions, such as ‘cage homes’, cubicles and rooftop constructions, through a series of portraits of residents. If, as Yip concludes, ‘a city is only as strong as its weakest link’, Hong Kong’s health inequalities deserve further attention.

The link between health and social inequality is a key focus of the ‘social determinants’ approach to health, spear-headed by Michael Marmot and the WHO’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health24 In this perspective, health is not only determined by individual factors, such as our age, sex and genetic characteristics, but also by our social status and the conditions in which we live. The unequal distribution of social goods and urban amenities within cities is reflected in health inequalities that are often clearly visible, both on maps and within cities themselves. Even within the same city, urban areas can provide some of the best and worse environments for health. A comprehensive review of ill health and poverty suggests that the ‘urban advantage’ often assumed by governments and international agencies falls away when socioeconomic factors are taken into account.25 Analysis of data from 47 low- and middle-income countries found an urban advantage in child health in only three countries.26 In Sub-Saharan Africa, this advantage was maintained only in one country (Malawi) of the 15 analysed, once socioeconomic status was taken into account.27 The health benefits of cities do not come automatically – they depend on the ability and willingness of governments to provide essential services and infrastructure.

Can we be healthy and happy in cities?

Well-being is a much broader term than health. It encompasses a wide range of issues and can be defined and measured in a variety of different ways, depending on the particular theory of well-being understood.28 Well-being can incorporate both objective needs, such as decent housing and income (often collectively termed, ‘quality of life’ or ‘standard of living’), and subjective feelings of happiness and life satisfaction. One definition captures the meaning of well-being particularly well: ‘it connotes being well psychologically, physically, and socioeconomically, and, we should add, culturally: it is all these things working together’.29 The WHO definition of health, which has now stood for over 60 years, actually encompasses well-being: ‘a state of complete, physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.30 This definition implies that to be healthy is not only to be free of disease but also the ability to make a living, to live in decent conditions, to have access to basic services, to engage in social relationships and to feel able to affect one’s own circumstances.

Well-being is once again gaining political ground in many parts of the world, as an alternative and broader measure of welfare than GDP alone. In the United Kingdom, the first national surveys of happiness are currently underway; in France, President Nicholas Sarkozy is integrating the measurement of well-being into the analysis of the country’s performance. These efforts confirm what the post-World War II architects of systems of national accounts knew 75 years ago: that welfare could not be measured by GDP alone.31 US presidential candidate Robert Kennedy said in 1968:

The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials … it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.32

Cities are now recognised as the economic powerhouses of their nations, and of the world. They also have the potential to be great sources of human well-being. The problem is, we don’t know which cities are performing well, and which are not, and therefore our ability to explore the determinants of well-being in cities, and hence to inform urban policy, is limited. There remains ‘an implicit assumption in the dominant aspatial thinking about wellbeing, namely that once we control for personal characteristics, places all yield the same level of subjective wellbeing to their residents’.33 As Paul Dolan and Robert Metcalfe point out in their essay on happiness and economics, we do not yet have the evidence on what makes us happy, including in relation to neighbourhoods and cities. In Hong Kong, Lok Sang Ho has developed a ‘happiness index’. He thinks through the implications account of this new indicator of social progress for public policy in this publication, suggesting that a more relaxed stance on land supply might help to create a happier Hong Kong. Based on its global study of metropolitan well-being, LSE Cities expands the comparison of health in 129 extended metropolitan regions to encompass education and wealth, in a first attempt to develop an international comparison of urban well-being.

Do planning and design matter?

The importance of the physical environment to health in cities has been known for more than 100 years. Indeed, public health and urban planning share a common history in the escalating health problems that arose in many European and US cities in the nineteenth century as they rapidly industrialised and grew. At that time, disease was understood to be caused by ‘miasma’ and, following John Snow’s work on a cholera outbreak in Soho, London, in 1854, by ‘contagious entities’, a pre-cursor to modern germ theory. The miasma theory held that diseases such as cholera and typhoid were caused by a foul-smelling bad vapour or mist (miasma). Infections were not passed between people, but were rather caused by exposure to unhealthy environmental conditions that gave off bad air. In England, this theory informed Edwin Chadwick’s sanitation reforms, which aimed to separate households from the disease-causing ‘bad air’ understood to be given off by sewage through the construction of drainage systems.34 It also led to more comprehensive city rebuilding, motivated by a desire to separate both the activities and populations thought to cause disease and thus reduce the risk of contact with bad air and hence infection. Haussmann’s plan for Paris is a prime example.

Health also provided a strong motivation for some of the most influential architecture and planning movements of the twentieth century. Ebenezer Howard’s vision of a ‘garden city’, for example, aimed to marry the best of town and country in a connected cluster of ‘slumless and smokeless cities’. Le Corbusier was motivated by many of the same issues: how to create better living conditions in cities. His vision for a healthy city was, of course, very different, in which cities were razed and built anew, with high-rise towers providing decent housing, amenities and services for the working classes, between which people moved freely in their cars along wide and extensive motorways, and where they could enjoy parks and gardens.

It is fair to say, however, that today health is no longer a central control of urban planning policy or practice, and vice versa. The development of germ theory had a profound impact on public health, as it focused increasingly on universal health care, public immunisation plans and the targeting of individual behaviours such as diet, smoking and physical activity, rather than living conditions. Bucking this trend, the environmental health movement and the WHO’s Healthy Cities project have made significant efforts in recent decades to reconnect public health with its concern for the urban environment. While the environmental health movement grew strongly out of the health challenges facing low- and middle-income countries, the Healthy Cities project has its roots in the contexts and concerns of high-income countries in North America and Western Europe. Despite its appeal and visibility, as well as the moderate progress achieved by cities towards fulfilling the Healthy Cities project requirements, it has been much more successful in Europe than in developing world regions.35

Urban health and planning researchers have focused their attention both on the challenges facing cities in North America and Western Europe, such as rising obesity rates, increasing use of private vehicles, road traffic injuries and fear of crime, and on the continuing inadequacy of basic infrastructure such as sanitation, water and drainage in parts of many cities in low- and middle-income countries. There is now fairly strong evidence to support the existence of relationships between insufficient/inadequate basic infrastructure and infectious disease; housing quality and injury; respiratory disease and other mental and physical health risks; green space and mental health; and urban morphology and physical activity. This evidence has been systematically reviewed by several international networks, including the Rockefeller Foundation supported Global Research Network on Urban Health Equity and the WHO’s Knowledge Network on Urban Settings, as well as by the Marmot review working group on the built environment and health equity and a range of other authors. Together, these reviews provide a substantial and thorough overview of the field.36

Shifting health and urban agendas

As health patterns and urban forms shift and change, the need for research and policy on urban health to move beyond its roots in European and North American concerns becomes ever clearer, as Libby Burton acknowledges in her review of the evidence linking aspects of the built environment to children’s well-being. The disparity between the health burdens experienced by the urban poor in low- and middle-income countries and the focus of much urban health research on cities in rich nations is particularly clear. But, in fact, as high-income Asian, Eastern European and other countries are much more rarely the subject of urban health research than cities in Western Europe, North America and Australasia, it is also important to extend analysis to cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Osaka, which perform strongly in relation to life expectancy and infant mortality internationally (see ‘Measuring metropolitan well-being’), and may provide useful insights for other cities. Overall, a nuanced approach is needed, sensitive to the wide range of urban morphologies and contexts of different cities throughout the world. The following examples provide a sense of some of the issues to contend with.

Water and sanitation

According to a 1990 study of the health benefits associated with improved water supply and sanitation, such interventions have achieved between a 20 and 82 per cent reduction rate in child mortality, with the best six studies suggesting a median reduction rate of 55 per cent.37 Contamination of water can also occur in the home, rather than in the water source itself: household water containers have been found to have higher levels of faecal contaminants than the water sources themselves.38 Sanitation is an equally complex matter: David Satterthwaite argues that the levels of improvement in sanitation facilities targeted by the Millennium Development Goals are insufficient to secure the relevant health benefits: simple pit latrines with a slab, for example.39 Sanitation interventions must also be culturally, socially and economically appropriate if they are to be effective: relying on unrealistic levels of personal investment or hygiene practices that are impossible to carry out is not likely to lead to a sustained improvement.40 Supplying adequate water and sanitation should not, therefore, be viewed as a ‘technical fix’ that is well understood and easily implementable.41

In Mumbai, the Triratna Prerana Mandal initiative (TPM) built on its ten years’ experience in cleaning and maintaining shared neighbourhood toilets by constructing 16 new local public toilet blocks between 2001 and 2003.42 TPM’s activities did not stop, however, at the construction of the blocks; not only did they continue to maintain these blocks, keeping them usable and hygienic, they also used the space above and around them to run activities and services, including computer classes, a childcare centre, a recycling initiative and to support women’s groups in providing meals for 2,000 undernourished children each day. These activities played a crucial role in keeping the toilet blocks safe for women and children to use, as well as creating new opportunities for the surrounding communities. TPM provides an example of how public health interventions can be effectively supported and enhanced by broader initiatives, improving well-being as well as health.

In the case of Maputo, Mozambique, explored in detail by Jørgen Eskemose Andersen and Paul Jenkins, it was the city government that took the lead through proactive action to manage urban growth despite limited resources. Eskemose Andersen and Jenkins describe how, rather than continue with a costly urban upgrading project initiated by the national government and the UN in the 1970s, the newly formed Greater Maputo city council launched a strategic programme in the early 1980s to ‘get ahead’ of burgeoning residential land demand by the provision of sites with minimal services. The plots were marked out quickly and simply in a grid formation and ‘barefoot planners’ provided construction advice and land control, and assisted with a subsidised basic sanitation programme. Some 30 years on, the intended spatial order has been maintained, permitting subsequent provision of infrastructure and social facilities by the municipal government and private companies, at a much lower cost due to the structured layouts. As Eskemose Andersen and Jenkins argue, the case of Maputo provides important insights into what can be achieved with limited resources if a city government is willing to plan with, rather than for, its people.


There is strong evidence supporting a link between housing and a host of physical and mental health problems. Housing is important to health not only for the quality of the shelter it provides from heat, cold, noise, rain, dust and so on, but also in relation to the water and sanitation infrastructure it provides, whether it offers a safe environment for storing food, cooking and working, and whether it presents risks to health due to overcrowding, amongst other matters.43 Inadequate housing is associated with increased bronchitis, pneumonia, stroke, heart disease and accidents, for example, while overcrowding is associated with infections, stress and intra-family violence.44

This evidence has and continues to provide strong motivation for slum upgrading projects and housing renewal programmes throughout the world, whether in Hong Kong, London or Mumbai. Yet many such programmes actually fail to improve the health of residents. Here, McGonigle and Kirby’s legendary study of a slum demolition and rehousing project in Stockton-on-Tees in England in 1929, which actually led to an increase in death rates amongst re-housed groups, provides insights that remain relevant today.45 A replacement housing project for pavement dwellers next to the Shivaji Nagar informal settlement in Govandi, Mumbai, provides a more recent but equally compelling example. Prior to a street-widening scheme, which triggered their eviction and rehousing, these migrants from a nearby fishing village lived and worked on Mumbai’s pavements, weaving baskets from long bamboo stalks and selling their wares to the passing trade. Rehoused in small apartments with no space inside for basket weaving, no passing trade and facing a long commute to the city centre, the former pavement dwellers lost their source of livelihood. Without money to pay for electricity, the buildings’ lifts were out of service and became a health hazard as they filled up with rubbish and attracted rats. For these migrants, the bleak conditions of the pavement had been replaced by what rapidly became a ‘vertical slum’, and was made worse by their loss of income, suggesting that improvements in basic living conditions alone will not necessarily result in improvements to health.

Housing replacement or renewal projects that take the broader economic and social role of housing into account have the potential to have a more positive overall impact on residents’ health and well-being. In his article, David Satterthwaite provides a series of examples of housing improvement and slum upgrading programmes that have been more sensitive to these issues: Thailand’s Baan Mankong (secure housing) programme funds community groups to plan and improve their own conditions, while a project in Pune, India, managed by a federation of women’s savings groups, engages each household in developing and agreeing planned upgrades. In Karachi, Pakistan, the architect and researcher Arif Hasan proposes an alternative approach to upgrading settlements – high-density plot settlements rather than apartment complexes – based on careful research with residents of four low- and middle-income areas. Hasan’s alternative model better reflects the ways in which residents use their homes: expanding them incrementally to house married children and carrying out income-generating activities. He also recommends that technical advice be made available to residents to ensure that any upgrading or incremental building they do is safe and does not lead to unhealthy densities. Hasan has been asked to put his plans into practice for a housing project in Lahore.

Urban morphology

The most common NCDs (heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and respiratory disease) now account for 60 per cent of global deaths each year, driven by the profound lifestyle changes that have accompanied economic and social change.46 In light of the importance of physical activity in reducing the risk of these diseases, substantial efforts have been made to identify the potential of the built environment to encourage or inhibit physical activity. Much of the evidence hinges on whether urban sprawl – in and of itself – leads to greater private car use.47 However, the issue is more subtle than that, leading to the idea of an area needing to have a variety of characteristics in order to be a ‘walkable neighbourhood’: high density, mix of land uses, fine-grained street networks and human-scaled streets.48 While good evidence exists to support the idea that residents of ‘walkable neighbourhoods’ walk more than residents of less ‘walkable neighbourhoods’ (at least twice as many, according to a review of 11 North American studies,49 for example), the lack of longitudinal studies mean that it is not clear to what extent this reflects the choices of residents to live in a neighbourhood that meets their walking preferences.

Obesity and NCDs are, however, no longer just a problem of the United States, Europe and Australasia. Indeed, they are growing fastest in low- and middle-income countries, and are predicted to continue doing so.50 The health challenges facing Singapore today, for example, are very different to those of 50 years ago, as K. S. Chia, C. K. Heng and K. C. Ho explain in their article on the challenges for a city open to migration. Diabetes and obesity are on the rise, raising questions about how physical activity can be better incorporated within working life and recreation within a hyper-dense environment.

Taking another example, in China, 14.7 per cent of the population is now overweight and 2.6 per cent is obese (2002 figures).51 While these statistics remain low in relation to the US and other Western countries, they have been rising rapidly, particularly amongst young people. Obesity increased four times between 1985 and 2000, while obesity and overweight together increased 28 times over the same period.52 Changes in diet, increasing wealth, sedentary lifestyles, reduced physical activity and passive commuting have all played a part in driving these increases. Here, the built environment of many Chinese cities also poses significant challenges: Yangfeng Wu, from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, explains, ‘the lack of consideration towards constructing environments in inner cities that promote physical activity has meant that it has become increasingly difficult to find safe places in residential areas to exercise or even walk’.53 Yet in Shanghai, for example, 25.2 per cent of people still travel to work by bike: the highest by far of the ten Urban Age cities, Berlin being the only other city where any significant proportion of people cycle to work (7.6 per cent).54

Is it possible that the existing Western-orientated research on urban sprawl and physical activity might offer any insights in such different urban environments? In the case of Cape Town, Warren Smit and Vanessa Watson draw on the initial results of their Healthy Cities CityLab to conclude that the Western modernist assumptions underpinning existing research do not relate to the conditions of African urbanism. The neat separations and definitions of Western city streets and units on which assessments of ‘walkability’ are based are not present in Cape Town, they say, and the relationships between the movement of residents and their neighbourhood environment are much more complex. Thus, the increasing prevalence of NCDs in cities beyond North America, Australia and Europe calls for new approaches to research and associated policy and practice on the potential for urban design and planning to increase physical activity, which accommodate the broader health and well-being needs of the urban poor in low- and middle-income countries.

Green space

Urban health research and policy has thus far been very much more focused on physical health than mental health, despite the fact that major depression is expected to generate the second highest loss of so-called disability-adjusted life years (DALYs; the sum of years of potential life lost due to premature mortality and the years of productive life lost due to disability55) by 2030.56 As Mazda Adli explains in his article on stress and the city, people living in cities are more likely to suffer from psychiatric diseases such as major depression or schizophrenia due in part, it is thought, to higher stress exposure and vulnerability. Adli, a psychiatrist, explains the significant range of impacts stress has on the body, from restructuring body fat, suppressing the immune system, premature ageing, to increased risk of mental disorder.

Strong evidence exists to suggest that experiencing and viewing nature reduces the stress of daily urban life, and parks, gardens, trees and greenery are all significant in this.57 In Hong Kong, urban parks have a particular importance to elderly people, who are their most frequent users.58 The early morning sight of elderly people practicing tai chi or walking for exercise in Hong Kong’s parks and gardens is ubiquitous. Playing with children, enjoying the space and social activities are other significant uses: the parks are social spaces as well as spaces for exercising.59 In fast-paced Hong Kong, they also have a particular role in providing a space for people to relax.60 For many of the young people we spoke to as part of qualitative research carried out by LSE Cities and the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong’s urban public and green spaces felt inaccessible, being full of children and the elderly. Rather, they turned to restaurants and badminton courts if they wanted to relax with friends, and to listening to music through headphones if they wanted some privacy and time to themselves. The importance of green space in ameliorating stress and mental health disorders in cities beyond Europe and North America justifies further examination, in light of the strong evidence linking these issues and the growing problem of stress and mental health.61

Shaping cities for health: what next?

As urban health research, policy and practice shifts its geographies towards a broader range of urban contexts, new methodologies and approaches will be required. Here we offer a few suggestions for potential directions of travel.

‘Design-conscious’ methodologies might provide more insight into the precise ways in which the built environment may be influencing health and well-being in a particular setting. Urban design and planning – from the macro-scale of sprawl versus compact development, and private car use versus sustainable transport, to the micro-scale of public space design, access to daylight, trees and recreational spaces – all matter to the way we feel about living in cities. Design-conscious urban health research would be alert to the details that are important in determining, for example, the extent to which an urban park is used by families, whether a health care facility is used by the urban poor, or a rehousing scheme allows for residents to adapt their homes in a safe way, avoiding the temptation to blur them through over-simplistic references to ‘the built environment’.

Qualitative methodologies might help to provide insights into health and well-being as experienced by urban residents. As Mathews and Izquierdo note, the term well-being ‘implies consideration of people’s own internal states of mind’,62 as well as the sorts of external and quantitative evaluations associated more with the term, quality of life. The six focus groups conducted by LSE Cities and the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong provided insight not only into how residents felt density impacted on their health and well-being but also, more importantly, into the ways in which they themselves make density work in Hong Kong, by adapting their behaviour and negotiating their environments. Setting such design-conscious and qualitative analyses in dialogue with quantitative public health science, both between and within cities, as explored earlier in this essay, may provide a powerful combination.

A spatial approach to urban health and well-being would give greater emphasis to the substantial health inequalities within cities, to the experience of health in place, and to the potential for the shape and design of the urban environment to influence human health and well-being. It could more explicitly show how the social hierarchies that take centre-stage in the social determinants approach are played out across the spaces and places of cities, visible in spatial inequalities in urban infrastructure as well as in socioeconomic and health status. It would require more focus on cities themselves and places and spaces within them, rather than spaceless and placeless ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ populations. It would communicate more clearly how insufficient, wrongly located or poorly designed infrastructure and amenities can reinforce and deepen social and health inequalities.

To recognise the politics of urban health involves indentifying that the decisions made by city mayors, developers, transport planners, urban designers, architects and city residents themselves matter to health and well-being: whether to have a green belt or invite endless sprawl; to invest in road-building or in public buses and trains; to take intentional and careful steps to create active and lively streets that encourage walking and mixing or to create segregated mono-functional enclaves that keep people apart. How dense should housing development be, and how can this be sensitive to the trade-offs that people make? How should the progressive improvement and ‘retrofitting’ of informal settlements be allowed for, or the growth through ‘barefoot’ planning be anticipated? Where should new hospitals or local health facilities be built, and what should they look like? Implications for human health and well-being accompany the decision in each case.

Yet in many cases, as we know, urban governance is likely to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Many informal settlements, where some of the most pressing challenges to health occur, are almost by definition places where urban governance lacks the capability and/or capacity to provide infrastructure needed to support healthy homes and livelihoods. As David Satterthwaite writes, ‘what advice can be given with regard to urban health in settlements where, in effect, there is no government?’.63 More pointedly, what is the point of advocating that urban planning and public health should be reconnected if no attempt at urban planning is being made, or where planning is failing? By bringing urban actors, whether developers, residents, community groups or politicians themselves into the equation, we hope to open up dialogue on how positive change can be achieved in diverse settings.

The Urban Age Hong Kong conference provides an opportunity to contribute to the development of these and other methodologies and approaches. It is defined not only by an interest in reading between research, policy and practice on urban health from cities in low-, middle- and high-income countries but also in setting quantitative, qualitative and design perspectives in conversation, and emphasising the spatial and political nature of urban health and well-being.



1 UN Population Division (2010) World Population Prospects – The 2010 Revision.

2 Dye, C. (2008) ‘Health and Urban Living’, Science, 319, pp. 766–9.

3 WHO data, available at

4 Vlahov, D., et al. (2007) ‘Urban as a Determinant of Health’, Journal of Urban Health, 84(1), pp. i16–i26.

5 McKinsey Global Institute (2011) Urban World: Mapping the Economic Power of Cities:

6 Hardoy, Mitlin and Satterthwaite (2001), cited in Sverdlik, A. (2011) ‘Ill-health and Poverty: A Literature Review on Health in Informal Settlements’, Environment and Urbanization, 23(1), pp. 123–55.

7 WHO data from 56 low- and middle-income countries, available at:

8 WHO data from 59 low- and middle-income countries, available at:

9 See Clark, G., and T. Moonen (2011) The Business of Cities: City Indexes in 2011: for a good overview of international city indices.

10 See Discussion Paper on international comparison of health and well-being in cities at

11 As discussed in detail in WHO and UN Habitat (2010) Hidden Cities: Unmasking and Overcoming Health Inequities in Urban Settings, WHO: Japan.

12 UN Habitat (2010) State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011: Bridging the Urban Divide – Overview and Key Findings, Nairobi: UN Habitat.

13 Sverdlik (2011) Op. cit.

14 Vlahov, et al. (2007) Op. cit.

15 Ibid.

16 African Population and Health Research Center (2002), Population and Health Dynamics in Nairobi’s Informal Settlements: Report of the Nairobi Cross-Sectional Slums Survey (NCSS) 2002, Nairobi: APHRC.

17 Sverdlik (2011) Op. cit.

18 Ibid.

19 Stephens, C., et al. (1997) ‘Urban Equity and Urban Health: Using Existing Data to Understand Inequalities in Health and Environment in Accra, Ghana, and São Paulo, Brazil’, Environment and Urbanization, 9(1), pp. 181–202.

20 WHO statistics cited in WHO and UN Habitat (2010) Op. cit.

21 GRNUHE (2010) Improving Urban Health Equity Through Action on the Social and Environmental Determinants of Health: Final report of the Global Research Network on Urban Health Equity, UCL and the Rockefeller Foundation; WHO and UN Habitat (2010) Op. cit.

22 WHO (2008) The Global Burden of Disease: 2004 Update, Geneva: WHO.

23 GLA (2008) Living Well in London: The Mayor’s Draft Health Inequalities Strategy for London:

24 CSDH (2008) Commission on Social Determinants of Health FINAL REPORT: Closing the Gap in a Generation – Health Equity through Action on the Social Determinants of Health, Geneva: WHO.

25 Sverdlik (2011) Op. cit.

26 Van de Poel, E., et al. (2007) cited in Sverdlik (2011) Op. cit.

27 Fotso, J. C. (2007), cited in Sverdlik (2011) Op. cit.

28 See, for example, the following useful reviews: McAllister, F. (2005) Wellbeing Concepts and Challenges: Discussion Paper prepared by Fiona McAllister for the Sustainable Development Research Network; Powdthavee, N. (2007) Economics of Happiness: A Review of Literature and Applications; and Dolan, P., T. Peasgood and M. White (2008) ‘Do We Really Know What Makes Us Happy? A Review of the Economic Literature on the Factors Associated with Subjective Well-being’, Journal of Economic Psychology, 29, pp. 94–122.

29 Matthews, G., and C. Isquierdo (eds) (2009) Pursuits of Happiness: Well-being in Anthropological Perspective, p. 3.

30 Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948.

31 nef (2009) National Accounts of Well-being: Bringing Real Wealth onto the Balance Sheet, London: nef.

32 Remarks by Robert F. Kennedy at the University of Kansas, 18 March 1968, cited in nef (2009) Op.cit.

33 Morrison, P. S. (2007) ‘Subjective Wellbeing and the City’, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, 31, pp. 74–103.

34 Corburn, J. (2004) ‘Confronting the Challenges in Reconnecting Urban Planning and Public Health’, American Journal of Public Health, 94(4), pp. 541–6.

35 For further information about the Healthy Cities initiative, see the helpful overview provided by Kenzer, M. (1999), ‘Healthy Cities: A Guide to the Literature’, Environment and Urbanization, 11(1), pp. 201–20.

36 See, for example, the substantial reviews of the literature by GRNUHE (2010) Op. cit; Knowledge Network on Urban Settings (2008) Our Cities, Our Health, Our Future: Acting on the Social Determinants for Health Equity in Urban Settings – Report to the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health from the Knowledge Network on Urban Settings, Japan: WHO; Northridge, M., and Lance Freeman (2010) Urban Planning and Health Equity: A Report Prepared for the World Health Organization; Power, A. et al. (2009) Strategic Review of Health Inequalities post-2010 – Task Group 4: The Built Environment and Health Inequalities Final Report 12 June 2009; Barton, H. (2009) ‘Land Use Planning and Health and Well-being’, Land Use Policy, 26, pp. s115–s123; Srinivasan, S. (2003) ‘Creating Healthy Communities, Healthy Homes, Healthy People: Initiating a Research Agenda on the Built Environment and Public Health’, American Journal of Public Health, 93(9), pp. 1446–50; amongst others.

37 Esrey, S. A., J. B. Potash, L. Roberts and C. Shiff (1990) Health Benefits from Improvements in Water Supply and Sanitation: Survey and Analysis of the Literature on Selected Diseases, WASH Technical Report No. 66, US AID, Washington DC, 73 pages.

38 Benneh, et al. [1993], and Lindskog and Lundqvist [1989], cited in McGranahan, G., et al. (2001) The Citizen at Risk: From Urban Sanitation to Sustainable Cities, London: Earthscan.

39 Satterthwaite, D. (2011) ‘Why is Urban Health So Poor Even in Many Successful Cities?’, Environment and Urbanization, 23(1), pp. 5–11.

40 Ibid.

41 McGranahan, G., et al. (2001) Op. cit, Chapter 3.

42 Kaasa, A., with M. Rosa and P. Shankar (2011) ‘On the Ground: The Deutsche Bank Urban Age Awards’, in R. Burdett and D. Sudjic (eds) Living in the Endless City: The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society, London: Phaidon pp. 396–411.

43 WHO (1989) cited in GRNUHE (2010) Op. cit.

44 Smith S. (1989) cited in GRNUHE (2010) Op. cit..

45 McGonigle, G. C. M. and J. Kirby (1936) Poverty and Public Health, London and Southampton: The Camelot Press Ltd.

46 WHO (2008) cited in GRNUHE (2010) Op. cit.

47 See, for example, a number of contributions in Jenks, M., E. Burton and K. Williams (eds) (1996) The Compact City: A Sustainable Urban Form?, London: Routledge; and Jenks, M. and R. Burgess (2000) Compact Cities: Sustainable Urban Forms for Developing Countries, Abingdon: Spon Press.

48 A range of evidence is summarised in GRNUHE (2010) Op. cit.

49 Sallis, J. et al. (2004), cited in ibid.

50 Mayosi, B. et al. (2009) cited in ibid.

51 2002 China national nutrition and health survey, cited in Wu, Y. (2006) ‘Overweight and Obesity in China: The Once Lean Giant has a Weight Problem that is increasing Rapidly’, British Medical Journal, 333, August, pp. 362–3.

52 China national surveys on the constitution and health of school children, cited in ibid.

53 Ibid.

54 Urban Age data.

55 As defined by the WHO.

56 GRNUHE (2010) Op. cit.

57 Various studies cited by Jackson, R. J. (2003) ‘The Impact of the Built Environment on Health: An Emerging Field’, American Journal of Public Health, 93(9), pp. 1382–4.

58 Wong, K. W. (2009) ‘Urban Park Visiting Habits and Leisure Activities of Residents in Hong Kong, China’, Managing Leisure, 14, pp. 125–40.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid.

61 GRNUHE (2010) Op. cit.

62 Mathews, G. and C. Izquierdo (2009) ‘Introduction: Anthropology, Happiness and Well-being’ in Mathews and Izquierdo (eds) Pursuits of Happiness: Well-being in Anthropological Perspective, United States: Berghahn Books (p.4).

63 Satterthwaite (2011) Op. cit.

Ricky Burdett is Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Director of LSE Cities and the Urban Age programme.

Myfanwy Taylor is the lead Research Officer for the Cities, Health and Well-being project at LSE Cities.