Healthy living in the city

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In 2050 almost three quarters of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Living in the city poses challenges to the health of its inhabitants. At Utrecht University, we are investigating a number of dimensions of healthy living in the city. How does public transportation affect public health? What are the other alternatives for the car as a means of transportation? How do you move people to make healthy decisions? And what are the effects of the city’s social interactions on mental health?

Cycling or walking in the outside air is better for you than taking the car, even if that air is not fresh

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Cities are becoming more and more important. In 2050 around 75% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. The research project Healthy Urban Living originated at Utrecht University when Geoscientists teamed up with researchers in Health studies to investigate the health challenges of living in the city. Healthy Urban Living brings together different parties both within and outside the university. Together, we study the health effects of people’s interaction with urban surroundings and lifestyles.

The city poses many important health challenges. One of the reasons is the way people travel. Using modern technologies, we can map out the movement of people and the type of transportation they use. Other challenges are posed by the lifestyles of city dwellers. Urban areas offer an abundance of unhealthy options: fast food chains and bars on every corner make a life filled with greasy food, alcohol and cigarettes tempting. The city’s social structure could pose a health threat as well. The city is not a community but a collection of individuals. You meet or pass a vast number of strangers every single day. This can lead to stress situations that have a negative effect on mental health.

These are three examples of health challenges posed by urban living that we want to approach from different scientific disciplines. Before we can offer solutions to these problems, we need to study exactly how these challenges have come about.

Practical Examples

A big problem for cities is the ‘last mile’: car traffic stagnates in the city. This causes practical problems as well as safety risks and health challenges. Public transportation is not the only answer. When a ‘congestion charge’ was implemented in London air pollution actually went up! Why? People took public transportation. The growing number of buses and taxis caused the emission level to go up. Health measures can have negative side effects.

 We think cities should promote active mobility instead of mechanical mobility. Cycling or walking in the outside air might still be better for you than taking the car, even if that air is not fresh: this is due to the added health benefits of physical activity that comes with active transport. Cars and buses as well as industries that are often located in or around cities, cause air pollution. It is therefore not enough to only look at how people travel, but also study the environment they move in. This example shows the importance of our integral, multidisciplinary approach to healthy urban living.

Why is this so important

Cities are growing fast, faster than people can adapt to this environment. However, the solution can be found there as well. Urban areas have a high density of functions: in a short distance there is work, home and leisure. This means that it should be possible to perform all aspects of living within a small action radius. The local distances could be bridged on foot or by bike. 

Western cities, which we are focusing on in this stage of the research, are well-organized. A lot of health measures have been implemented already. Big industries have moved away from the city. Public transportation systems are switching to electric buses, taxis and trams. Special bicycle lanes and several city bike hire systems promote the use of bicycles, not only in the Netherlands, but in other European cities, too. This is not the case in non-Western cities, which are often bigger and faster growing than the ones we are studying. Our research could prove useful there as well.

Biography

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Originally I am an urban geographer. I wrote my dissertation at the TU-Delft on the subject of mobility. Over time, my perception of mobility has changed. It is not just a way of traveling from A to B, but an interaction with the environment. Urban geography and mobility research are often focused on the neighbourhoods where people live. But they spend relatively little time here. That is why I started to look at the several environments people move in. As a geographer, I ask the question what can be changed in an environment to promote healthy living.

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Social and Commercial opportunities

Our research provides many opportunities for social and commercial implementation. We are thinking of creating an app that tracks urban movement while also stimulating people to be more active. By introducing a competitive element, users can be persuaded to walk instead of taking the bus, for instance. The data collected with this app could also be used to measure ‘busy-ness’. Colleagues from the Department of Psychiatry have learned that certain psychiatric patients suffer from large crowds. An app could tell them which areas of the city are more quiet.

A great opportunity for stimulating active mobility might be the electronic bicycle. It has the potential to replace the car for work-related traffic. The estimated average distance from home to work is 15-20 km, maybe too much for a traditional bike, but perfect for an electronic one. We are studying whether it is really healthier than the car, by looking at pollution, safety and physical exercise. The results of our investigation could provide useful for the development of these bikes.

My dream for this project

We think a truly healthy city is possible. Active mobility should be promoted and the use of motorized vehicles discouraged. On the long term, cities should be planned differently, for instance to reduce the distance between living and working. In our dream city, these distances will be crossed by foot, bike, or e-bike. You should try riding a high speed electric bicycle. It feels like you are Speedy Gonzalez!

My expertise

Urban geography, urban planning, physical active mobility, public transportation, e-bike, epidemiology, group health, air quality, pollution