New study explores how we can better design healthier cities

The Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning’s Transport, Health and Urban Design Research Lab at the University of Melbourne alongside the Center for Public Health at Queen’s University of Belfast are the joint recipients of over $1.2 million in funding by the Australian and UK Government to advance research into the impact of urban design on health.

The funding comes as part of a broader initiative by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to commit to international collaboration and support research grants awarded under a joint scheme with UK Research and Innovation.  In total, $3.65 million has been awarded to international research collaborations to improve public health in built environments.

Non-communicable diseases (NCD), such as cancer, heart disease, type II diabetes mellitus, chronic respiratory conditions like asthma, and poor mental health, are some of the most common causes of death in the UK and Australia. The design of our cities plays an important role in preventing these chronic diseases and has a significant consequent impact on the quality of life and life expectancy of their citizens.

The project titled ‘A vision of healthy urban design for NCD prevention’ will focus on generating new evidence from the application of state-of-the art computer vision techniques for analysing urban form and connecting this information to measures of population health. Digital technologies will be used to generate evidence and create tools to support urban planners, working with the health sector, to design urban spaces that improve public health, rather than cause health problems.

“Urban design has an enormous impact on community health, and this funding recognizes the magnitude of this impact” says the Australian team’s Chief Investigator, Dr Jason Thompson. “Our research has the potential to greatly improve health outcomes, through tangible and easily implemented changes to our cities and towns”.

The UK Team’s Chief Investigators Dr Ruth Hunter and Dr Leandro Garcia explain that currently urban designers, urban planners and public health practitioners still try to understand how best to design our cities in order to prevent NCD and their known risk factors. “Our overarching aim is to generate evidence and tools to support the urban planning and health sectors to better understand how to design our cities to prevent NCD”, they said. “We also plan to involve local citizens in discussions about our findings so they can effectively and powerfully advocate for change in their own cities”.

The research project has the following objectives:

  • Use new methods in computer vision and artificial intelligence to explore the relation between urban design and NCD in cities across the UK and Australia.
  • Investigate how different designs within cities impact on health inequalities including NCD.
  • Combine data from different sources to investigate the mechanisms by which the design of our cities causes NCD.
  • Learn lessons about how different ways of designing our cities prevent NCD and their known risk factors.
  • Develop a toolkit for action for local citizens, urban designers and planners, public health practitioners and policy makers, to help inform future policies and lead to powerful, actionable changes in the city.
  • To build a legacy of transdisciplinary research capacity in public health science, urban design and computer science, with clear pathways to impact.

The research project is expected to be completed in mid 2023.