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City living better for health and happiness, says study

Density improves walkability, exercise, social ties, and happiness


Looking for a happier, healthier life? According to a new study of 22 British cities, the answer is to move downtown.

Joint research by Oxford University and the University of Hong Kong compared the living conditions and health outcomes of 400,000 residents of cities such as London, Glasgow, and Cardiff, as well as less dense suburban areas. The conclusion was that denser, walkable urban living improved health outcomes, and that those “living in built-up residential areas had lower levels of obesity and exercised more than residents in scattered, suburban homes,” according to a Guardian analysis of the results.

“As cities get more and more compact, they become more walkable,” lead researcher Chinmoy Sarkar, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Hong Kong, told The Guardian. “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 results, published in the medical journal Lancet, found that density and walkability played the most important role in health outcomes. Areas of suburban sprawl had more obesity and lower rates of exercise than urban areas. Even wealthy suburban enclaves lagged behind dense inner cities when it came to important measures such as physical activity and social interaction.

Sarkar said this data raised questions about British planning decisions, which can favor sparser, less dense development.

This study, which points to the value of population density, comes on the heels of a report about U.S. communities, planning, and walkability. A recent report card from the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance gave the country an “F” overall when it comes to making communities more walkable. One of the biggest issues was walkability for children, especially to and from school. The report noted that in 1969, almost 48 percent of elementary and middle school students walked or bicycled to school, while today, 45 percent ride to school in a personal vehicle.