Effective city design improves well-being.

The design of a city is much more than just planning where to put parking spaces and roads.

At a glance:

  • City design has an impact on well-being
  • Access to parks, pathways and activity centres can improve well-being
  • Research by UWA scientists is informing public policy and urban design

City design should take into account the well-being of its inhabitants, says Dr Sarah Foster and Dr Paula Hooper from the Centre for the Built Environment and Health at The University of Western Australia.

The team, led by Professor Fiona Bull, are researching how thoughtful city designs can help improve the health and well-being of its residents. To address this question, they designed the Residential Environments Project (known as RESIDE), which studied 73 housing projects under development in the Perth and Peel region.

The RESIDE project focused on evaluating how these new residential projects, some of which followed WA's State Liveable Neighbourhoods (LN) Policy, influenced its residents over a course of seven years.

Parks, pathways and activity centres improve well-being

Professor Bull and her team recruited 1800 new homeowners who were planning to relocate to one of these 73 housing projects. Participants were asked to answer four very long and detailed questionnaires over different periods over a seven-year period. The first questionnaire was sent while their homes were being built, whereas the other three were sent at different time points after they had moved into their new homes and neighbourhoods.  

The team also employed Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools to study different aspects of the housing projects, such as land use, access to public open spaces such as parks and community facilities, numbers of schools, connectivity and ease of walking within the neighbourhood, among many others. Then, it looked at how these features might be influencing the health of its inhabitants.

“Our project helped to determine if features like living in a community with well-connected paths, schools and easy to access activity centres, and other features resulted in positive outcomes for their residents.

It also helped us determine how much of the LN policy was being implemented in these new housing projects, and what combination of features are the most important regarding health benefits,” researchers said in a published report.

You are 38% more likely to walk if you live near a park

Some of the results published so far indicate that people are keen to take up a healthier lifestyle, but they need some encouragement from their neighbourhood. For example, the information from the RESIDE dataset showed that residents living near a well-equipped park were 38% more likely to walk over one hour each week. Similar outcomes on walking encouragement were found for other neighbourhood features, such as high street and footpath networks, number and type of shops or services available, residential density and proximity to schools.
Living near a school, for example, predicted whether children walked or cycled to school.

“For each additional kilometre a child had to travel to get to school, they were 86% less likely to walk,” the report found. High street connectivity also proved important, as children attending school in areas with highly connected street networks and low traffic were four-times more likely to walk regularly to and from school.

Living near green spaces also improved mental health. According to the RESIDE report, “Participants with access to at least one high-quality park within their neighbourhood were two times more likely to have better mental health”.

The RESIDE project officially concluded in 2015 and has so far produced over 50 publications detailing the outcomes of their research. However, there are still plenty of opportunities for new students to use the vast datasets generated in this project to address new questions, says Dr Hooper. Also, a new project following up on the RESIDE results is now underway with the Health Liveable Communities initiative.


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