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The design of urban environments has the potential to enhance the health and well-being of residents by impacting social determinants of health including access to public transport, green space, and local amenities.

Ng and Popkin (2012) argued that people in many countries have reduced their physical activities over the past few decades. In the 19th century, urban planning sectors closely cooperated with public health sectors to deal with communicable disease outbreaks, but such collaboration declined in the 20th century. In recent years, the number of people engaged in physical activities, such as walking, has dropped dramatically, people’s health conditions are seriously affected (Koohsari, et. al., 2013). An increasing number of studies revealed that urban design can affect people’s health and well-being.

Inactivity – Sedentary Lifestyle

Figure 1. Physical activity has dropped over 30% in last 50 years in the US –in China it has dropped 45% in last than 20 years (Nike, 2012).


It is predicted that more than 70% of the population in the world will live in downtown areas by the year 2050. Although people know that regular physical activities play a great role in reducing obesity and have great benefits for their health, they fail to take the recommended amount of activities. According to a report of the British Department of Health (2005), recently only 24% women and 37% men meet the requirements of Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines in Wales and England, which suggest that people should have a moderate exercise for 30min at least five days a week. Pietila¨inen et al. (2008) found that currently more than 25% of adult people in the UK are overweight or have obesity, and considered that physical inactivity is a risk factor. Butland et al. (2007) estimated that these figures will increase by 50% in 2050 if such situation continues. In order to safeguard the health of all the people in the world, the spreading of diseases in dense downtown areas should be mitigated by applying extensible design strategies to improve people’s health and emotional wellness.

Inactivity and Human Health

  • Currently, the WHO revealed that inactivity is the fourth major risk factor that increases the global mortality, causing the death of about 3.2 million people each year.
  • Inactivity as a sedentary lifestyle is the major cause of increasing number of people with overweight obesity. 39% of people in the world were overweight and 13% of people in the world were obese in 2014 (the UK exceeded 60%). Inactivity is closely related to lifestyle diseases.
  • Inactivity is a major cause of the increasing number of people with type-II diabetes, thus increasing the risk of heart disease, sight loss, cancers, amputation, and other unnecessary illnesses.
  • Huge costs. For example, the UK had spent billions of pounds on obesity treatment.
  • …As a sedentary lifestyle, inactivity can exert direct impacts on people’s health and other aspects.

How urban design encourage physical activities?

Creating walkable neighbourhoods

According to Public Health Ontario (2017), walkable neighborhoods refer to those neighborhoods that have various destinations, which are not far away from each other, enough green space and well-connected streets. More and more researchers argue that community involvement and social networks can exert a positive impact on people’s health. Leyden (2003) considered that those people who like to participate social and community activities and play with others are likely to be healthier and live longer than other people.

Here is a video is about “new research that has some eye-opening information on how your health could depend on the “walkability” of your neighborhood”, by John Hua in 2015. Click here to see the full article.


The requirements of walkable neighborhoods

  • The main street or a public space should be the center of walkable neighborhoods.
  • Enough people are needed to enable the business to flourish and enable public transport tools to run regularly.
  • Affordable houses should be located near the business district, in order to achieve mixed use and mixed income:
  • Enough public space and parks are required for people to gather together and play.
  • In terms of pedestrian design, buildings should be arranged near the street, parking lots are concentrated in one area.
  • Schools and workplaces should be close enough, within residents’ walking distance.
  • Complete streets should be designed for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Well designed pedestrian realm and cycle infrastructure

In recent years, an increasing number of cars have been used in Europe and caused many problems, such as air pollution, noise, and traffic jams. Promoting walking and cycling modes is conducive to relieving serious public health problems. A well-designed public street can support the physical and walking activities. An urban design that has well-designed cycling routes will offer people more choices to carry out their daily activities. Pucher et al. (2010) argued that cycling commuting is conducive to reducing obesity, BMI, type II diabetes, and improving blood pressure (cycling has more advantages than walking). Crane et al. (2016) considered that cycling can improve the quality of people’s life and health, build a better connection with neighbors and enhance their place attachment. As an eco-friendly transport tool, cycling can also reduce air pollution, thus promoting people’s health. According to some case studies, the well-designed pedestrian space and cycling infrastructure in Kensington and Copenhagen can encourage people to do more physical activities.

Figure 5.Copenhegen. Source:
Figure 4. Kensington High Street. Source:

Public green spaces

Barton & Pretty (2010) argued that green space can exert a positive impact on people’s health because it enables people to do physical activities in green places or natural environment. According to Marselle et al. (2013), green exercise refers to the physical activity that is done in green space or natural environment, it is considered as a much healthier exercise type when compared with other types of exercise. Bodin and Hartig (2003) considered that if people run in a park, they will have a more restorative experience when compared with doing the same exercise in the downtown area. Many researchers on the relationship between physical activity and green space also focused on the change in behavior and claimed that certain green spaces are likely to encourage people to do more physical activities.

Figure 7. Edinburgh green space encourage activities for the public.

Urban design is considered as an efficient tool to improve people’s health and well-beings. It is a good way to encourage people, especially urban residents, to take physical activities, so as to protect their health and reduce relevant diseases. Walkable neighborhoods, well-designed pedestrian space and cycling routs and public green space can encourage people to take more physical activities in their daily lives. Urban designers should pay close attention to the needs of people when making an urban design.



Butland, B., Jebb, S., Kopelman, P., McPherson, K., Thomas, S., Mardell, J., et al.(2007). Foresight Tackling obesities: Future choices – Project report. London, UK: Department of Innovation Universities and Skills.

Department of Health. (2005). Choosing an activity: A physical activity action plan. London, UK: Department of Health.

Koohsari, M.J., (2012). Public Open Space and Walking, Melbourne School of Design, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, The University of Melbourne.

Leyden, K. M., (2002). Social Capital and the Built Environment: The Importance of Walkable Neighborhoods, American Journal of Public Health | Research and Practice, Vol. (9)93, pp.1546-1551.

Marselle, M. R., Irvine, K. N. & Warber, S. L., (2013). Walking for well‐being: are group walks in certain types of natural environments better for well‐being than group walks in urban environments? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Vol.10, pp.5603‐5628.

Ng, S.W., Popkin, B.M., (2012). Time use and physical activity: a shift away from movement across the globe. Obes. Rev. Vol.13, pp. 659–680.

Pietila¨inen, K. H., Kaprio, J., Borg, P., Plasqui, G., Yki-Ja¨ rvinen, H., Kujala, U. M., et al. (2008). Physical inactivity and obesity: a vicious circle. Obesity, Vol.16(2), pp.409–414.

WHO, (2016). Urban green spaces and health. Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe.


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Planning and Landscape
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