Can living in a densely populated urban centre make you healthier and happier? Yes, according to a study that found that city dwellers have lower rates of obesity and socialize more than people who live in the suburbs.

The study of 419,562 adults by Oxford University and the University of Hong Kong (UHK) found that people living in built-up, residential areas in 22 British cities had lower body-mass indexes and took more exercise than residents of more widely-spaced homes in suburban areas.

The researchers found that 1800 residential “units” per sq km (roughly 18 homes per hectare) is a crucial number: at this housing density level residents had the greatest rates of obesity, compared to city dwellers.

Image: UN

While people living in sprawling neighbourhoods may be at greater risk of obesity, in other wealthier parts of suburbia it’s a different story:

“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,” the Thomson Reuters Foundation said in its report on the study.

Report co-author Chinmoy Sarkar of UHK told Thomson Reuters: “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.”

The study’s authors argue that the density of a city, its shops, public transport links and closeness to places of work, help residents to be more active. For example, walking instead of driving.

Image: REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Commenting on other research that supports their findings, the authors say: “There is now an increasing body of evidence that several measures of high urban density, including residential density, retail and service density, street-intersection density and land-use diversity, are all associated with lower body-mass index and obesity.”

Gentrification

In his latest book, urbanist Richard Florida, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, argues that as city centres become attractive places to live, high property prices squeeze out the “service class”, such as taxi drivers and retail workers.

This allows the affluent “creative class”, who are also more able to afford gym memberships and exercise classes, to buy homes closer to amenities and their workplaces.

Some argue that it’s not just about wealth, and the way to create better opportunities for everyone is to improve access to quality education. However, this is hard to achieve when better schools are often in areas with high property prices. Plenty of studies from around the world link poverty to poor educational outcomes, as well as worse health and higher obesity levels.

While Florida’s work is considered controversial by many who specialize in urban studies, it does reflect a strain of thinking about the redevelopment of many urban centres.

Increasingly, what happens in cities is likely to have a big impact on us all. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, 65% of humanity will live in urban areas. How we are educated, whether we can walk to work or have to commute long distances, and the effects on our health and healthcare systems, are matters of concern that city planners and national governments are being urged to tackle now.

One example of how authorities might act, the Oxford and UHK authors say, is to update planning laws. The researchers say that their findings might mean that governments, such as the UK’s, which are attempting to prevent suburban densification by, for example, prohibiting the subdivision of single-lot housing and the conversion of domestic gardens into housing lots, conversely, could be preventing the suburbs from becoming healthier places to live.