A recent UK study has concluded that compact and walkable neighbourhoods improves peoples physical and mental health, with people living in them being more active and socially engaged than people that live in lower density suburbs. The link between health and urban form is strongly made in the report. This is an important relationship, particularly when part of the discussion is on the value of urban design.
By looking at the wider picture, where spending on health is significantly reduced in addition to the reductions of pollution and carbon emissions - which we soon have to address as part of the Paris Agreement – the positive value of good design can be recognised as improving both society and economics outcomes.
The study, published in The Lancet and a partnership between Oxford University and the University of Hong Kong, focused on 22 British cities including London, Cardiff and Glasgow comparing over 400,000 residents. It shows that people living in residential areas with predominantly terrace and apartments homes have lower levels of obesity and exercised more than their suburban counterparts. And whilst people may not know their immediate neighbours they know a broader spectrum of the community and more people.
The study found that as cities become more compact, they become more walkable. In denser residential areas they are better designed and become more attractive destinations where use of public transport increases and cars use decrease.
This is contrary to many peoples belief, ‘the urban myth’, of the suburban dream.
In the sprawling suburban areas where 18 homes per hectare (gross) is the norm - typical of poorly designed neighbourhoods near motorways, where driving is the only option – rates of obesity are higher than anywhere and rates of exercise are lowest.
Suburban areas with few homes – often privileged communities with big gardens and open spaces – were healthier than this but lagged behind the neighbourhoods in inner cities which are more densely populated.
The best health outcomes came in areas with more than 32 homes per hectare which is the average density for new development in Britain. This figure includes the streets and incidental spaces of a development and is approximately equivalent to 45 homes per hectare when it excludes roads and open space e.g. in NZ, ‘build partners’ area for development bounded by the back edge of the ‘road reserve’. However such density is less than a quarter of the density of the historic Georgia terraces in many of London’s desirable residential areas and London is significantly less populated, by more than 50%, of European capitals such as Madrid, Barcelona and Paris.
So what does this mean to NZ ?
This isn’t to say that density is the answer in itself but it is an important ‘lever’ we should be confident in using when the additional aspects of quality and accessibility to good amenity (open space, schools, shops, public transport etc) are part of our regeneration and development approaches.
The importance of the compact neighbourhood was at the heart of the initial drafts of the Auckland Unitary Plan. That the approach got watered down before it came operative (in part) was a significant concern too many that believe in evidence such as this report and that the city must embrace the positive aspects of the compact neighbourhood approach. That the first review of the Unitary Plan is underway may enable this to be revisited and become a stronger driver for the city’s growth encouraging regeneration within the city boundary and tightening, rather than loosening, restrictions around the urban rural fringe.
And its implications shouldn’t be lost outside of Auckland. Christchurch is leading the way and there are many other towns and cities that are planning significant growth in the near future from the major centres such as Wellington, Hamilton and Palmerston North to the smaller centres such as Warkworth or Rollerston, Porirua or Carterton. Improving living opportunities in centres that are walkable should be a key consideration in all of these areas and strategies should be in place to enable this before edge development is agreed.
To read the full report
Association between adiposity outcomes and residential density: a full-data, cross-sectional analysis of 419 562 UK Biobank adult participants
Obesity is a major health issue and an important public health target for urban design.
the link is below
photo credit to David St George (Hobsonville)