All posts by jonathanrolsen

What is ‘on the ground’ in a city linked to levels of inequality in life satisfaction

In a European-wide study of 63,554 people from 66 cities in 28 countries, we found links between urban design and levels of inequality in life satisfaction. This is the first study to theorise and examine how the entire urban landscape may affect levels of and inequalities in wellbeing in a large international sample.

Cities with an even distribution of facilities, housing and green space were linked with lower levels of inequality between residents’ life satisfaction levels, suggesting that more equal access to a range of facilities and types of land may help reduce the gap in life satisfaction between the most economically-deprived and most affluent residents of a city.

There was a strong link between higher life satisfaction and living in cities with homes surrounded by natural, green space. However, lower life satisfaction was linked to living in cities that had more wasteland, more space dedicated to housing, and more space in which all the land is concrete or tarmacked.

Implications for policy and planning.

The findings of our study suggest that urban planning has a role to play in addressing inequalities in cities. Our finding that more equal distribution of land cover/use is associated with lower levels of socio-economic inequality in life satisfaction supports the idea that city environments could be equigenic – that is, could create equality.

What people want or need from their city varies moment to moment, day to day, life stage to life stage. If a city is varied enough to offer people what they need, when they need it, it is likely to support a higher quality of life.

Three Generation Out Walking

Why understanding city design is important for population health and well-being?

With the United Nations reporting that more than half the world’s population residing in urban areas and this proportion rising, it is important to understand how well-planned urban environment might improve, and reduce inequalities in, quality of life. Therefore, understanding the influence urban environments can have on all aspects of health and wellbeing is increasingly important. Cities are continuously evolving and there is ample opportunity to ensure these are healthier and happier place to live.

What we did:

We applied theory and methods from landscape ecology to explore associations between cities’ land cover/use, residents’ reported life satisfaction and within-city socio-economic inequalities in life satisfaction. We joined individual-level responses to the European Urban Audit (EUA) Perception Surveys (2012 and 2015) with city-level data from the European Urban Atlas classifying land cover/use into 26 different classes. Our sample included 63,554 people from 66 cities in 28 countries.

The study, ‘Are urban landscapes associated with reported life satisfaction and inequalities in life satisfaction at the city level? A cross-sectional study of 66 European Cities’ is published in Social Science & Medicine (Open Access). The work was funded by The Medical Research Council (MRC) and Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office.

By Rich Mitchell, Natalie Nicholls & Jon Olsen , Neighbourhoods and Communities programme, MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow.

Do people actually use the facilities in their home neighbourhood?

This blog explores a key question in neighbourhood and health research: if there is a facility or amenity close to someone’s home, is it OK to assume they use it? Surprisingly, this assumption is at the heart of a lot of health and environment research.

We often have data which tells us where facilities and amenities are, and we tend to make the assumption that proximity means use. So, for example, if we see that some neighbourhoods have more parks or more leisure facilities, we expect the people who live in that neighbourhood use them more. Understanding local amenity and facility use is important because we want to know whether / how these things affect health.

With technological advances in recent years, studies have started to collect precise data which tell us exactly where people go using global position system (GPS) devices. We no longer have to assume, for example, that if there’s a park close to a child’s home, they will visit it. The GPS tracks we collect will tell us if they did or not. That presents an opportunity to test our assumptions.

Do children use facilities they have access to in their home neighbourhood?

Our team is interested in children’s use of facilities in and around their homes and to test whether we need GPS to research this we conducted an analysis of facility availability and facility use for 30 10-year-old children living in Glasgow. We used data from GPS devices worn by the children for eight days. These children were part of our ‘Studying Physical Activity in Children’s Environments across Scotland’ Study (SPACES).

The diagram below shows what we did. Our key finding was that facility availability in the home neighbourhood is not a good indicator of facility use; the children used facilities from across a much wider area in the city, even if they had a facility close to their home.  For example, 18 of the 30 children (60%) had a leisure centre within their ‘neighbourhood’ (which we defined as 800m around their home). Only 3 of the 18 actually visited that facility (as identified by their GPS tracks). Of those 18 children, 8 actually visited a leisure centre outside of their ‘neighbourhood’. We saw the same kind of pattern when exploring availability and visits to playing fields, public parks and libraries

Blog graphic

Are our results similar to other research?

Yes, other studies that used GPS devices have found that children do spend time outside of their immediate home area for specific purposes. For example, a 2017 study by Chambers and colleagues in Wellington, New Zealand analysed leisure time GPS data (before and after school) in 114 children aged 11 to 13 years from 16 schools, and found that 38% of their leisure time was spent outside of the home neighbourhood (using a 750m buffer around the home). Time outside of the home neighbourhood was mostly spent visiting their school, other residential locations, and fast food outlets.

These results, and those from similar studies, show that it is important not to treat what’s in someone’s immediate home neighbourhood as a good measure of what they do, or in epidemiological language ‘what they are exposed to’. We must challenge the idea that residential neighbourhood is an adequate way to capture the socio-environmental factors which contribute to health. Many people, including children, can and do access environments well beyond their immediate home neighbourhood. We think that a much wider geographic area should be considered when we’re asking questions about how environment affects health and we call this the city-wide landscape.

What does this mean for future research?

It’s clear that the ‘traditional’ approach which uses someone’s neighbourhood (often defined by a distance around their home, or an administrative area in which their home sits) to assess their access to facilities or exposure to environments is seriously flawed.

  • Other methodological approaches are required to measure ‘exposure’ to environment;
  • We must move beyond traditional fixed neighbourhood-health relationships (although we can’t ignore them);
  • We should embrace and integrate innovative technology to explore mobility (e.g. GPS and accelerometer).

Of course, even when we’re able to see exactly where people go and what they do, we still need to understand the decisions people make about whether or not to visit or spend time at different places.

By Jon Olsen, Research Associate with the Neighbourhoods and Communities programme, MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow.