Researchers Calculate the Healthiest City Density

Where urban living helps the heart.  

Pedestrians near St. Paul's Cathedral in London (Photo by Dave Reed) 

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

Despite the image of clean air, green backyards and fresh food often associated with leaving a dense urban core for more spread-out surroundings, new research finds that city dwellers are actually healthier — and happier — than their suburban counterparts.

The study, from Oxford University and the University of Honk Kong, looked at the impact of density on more than 400,000 residents in 22 British cities, including London, Glasgow and Cardiff. Researchers nailed down the optimum density from a health perspective: more than 32 homes per hectare.

The reason, as anyone who has lived in a city knows, is that city living involves a lot of walking, as well as other spontaneous physical and social activities.

In areas of denser suburban sprawl (about 18 homes per hectare), driving is often the best or only option to get around, leading to higher rates of obesity and lower rates of exercise. Those in more spread out suburban areas with plenty of open spaces and parks were healthier than their more tightly packed (and, generally, less wealthy) suburban counterparts, but still lagged behind dense inner cities in terms of health and exercise.

“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,” says co-author Chinmoy Sarkar, according to The Guardian.

The report also calls into question the British government’s plans to build 17 new towns and villages across the countryside to help solve the country’s housing shortage, the Guardian reports. Instead, the researchers argue, Britain should rethink its restrictive planning system that has prevented high-density, urban development, even in its largest cities.

The study’s findings reinforce Jane Jacob’s famous idea that the safest streets — and those with the most socially engaged residents — are an active “sidewalk ballet,” filled with a steady flow of pedestrians and “eyes on the street.” Researchers in Philadelphia and Italy have put Jacob’s theory to the test, and found it to be spot on.

Of course, density on its own doesn’t make for automatically healthy residents. An analysis released earlier this year pinpointed nine factors — including affordable housing, access to healthy food and paid sick leave — that contribute to a healthy city.

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Kelsey E. Thomas is a writer and editor based in the most upper-left corner of the country. She writes about urban policy, equitable development and the outdoors (but also about nearly everything else) with a focus on solutions-oriented journalism. She is a former associate editor and current contributing editor at Next City.

Follow Kelsey

Tags: urban designhealthjane jacobs

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 1064 other sustainers such as:

  • Ann at $5/Month
  • Linda at $25/Year
  • Adrian at $18.00/Month

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $20 or $5/Month

    20th Anniversary Solutions of the Year magazine

has donated ! Thank you 🎉