Health, wealth and prosperity

Municipalities must consider their people

New research shows that many living environments have a negative effect on the health and wellbeing of people.
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The general health of all our people will have a direct impact on the way our cities and municipalities will function in the 21st century – hence the desperate need to create smarter and healthier cities.

New research shows that many living environments have a negative effect on the health and wellbeing of people.

This is a huge factor that municipalities across South Africa will have to address if they want to secure sustainable smart cities in the future.

Unless the feedback from residents is taken into account during urban planning, the residents of new housing projects and informal settlements will suffer due to poor health and wellbeing, according to ongoing research by the African Centre for Cities’ 'CityLab: healthy cities programme.

“The physical urban environment is seen as influencing health in a variety of ways, such as through access to shelter and services, and through its influence on physical activity and on diet and nutrition.

"Our research shows that the physical environment has effects which have not been taken into account, and as such are influencing residents’ health,” says Dinky Levitt of the Chronic Disease Initiative for Africa (CDIA).

CityLab: Healthy Cities is an inter-disciplinary research collaboration with representatives from different departments of the University of Cape Town, the African Centre for Cities, the CDIA and others. 

They aim to develop new ‘conceptualisations’ of urban health, test out new methodologies and contribute to new theories about the relationship between the physical urban environment and health.

The researchers used a variety of techniques including body-mapping, a process where participants trace the outlines of their body and then annotate the tracing to discuss their health and well-being in whatever ways they understand these as concepts.        

CityLab conducted in-depth interviews with participants and asked them to take photographs, using disposable cameras, of aspects of their environment which they felt influenced their health and well-being.     

“By undertaking body-mapping workshops in different types of neighbourhoods, such as informal settlements and new housing projects, to determine perceptions of health and well-being, we determined that, while there are exceptions, many new housing projects still tend to provide sterile living environments that are not conducive to mental health or to safe outdoor activity – both in terms of aesthetic appeal and protection from hazards, such as traffic, crime and flooding,” says co-ordinator of CityLab: Healthy Cities, Warren Smit.

“While basic needs are being met, the complexity of the South African context means that many other needs are being overlooked completely. 

"An ongoing illustration is where relocation to the urban periphery results in the disruption of livelihood strategies and social support networks, with very negative impacts on the health and well-being of residents,” says Smit. 

Another failing in current urban planning is the fact that instruments for measuring ‘walkability’ in the creation of new settlements assume that there are clearly defined streets, plots or dwelling units and land uses, as well as clear separations between urban and rural, residential and commercial, and public and private.

“In the informal settlements found in African cities, for example, there are no clearly defined streets and no clear separations between vehicle space and pedestrian space, between public and private space, and between land uses; residential dwellings are often also the site of home-based businesses,” says Smit.

He says that similarly, plots and dwelling units are not clearly defined, and the CityLab research shows that even the idea of a household can be fairly fluid, with extended families spread across urban and rural homes and with frequent movement between them.

“All of this can make the relationship between residents and their neighbourhood environment far more complex than in the conventional conception of the Western modern city, which a lot of South Africa’s urban planning seem to be based upon.

"The main implication of this is that some of the tools relied on to create healthier urban environments in developed parts of the world, such as land-use zoning schemes, will have only a limited effect in cities of developing countries, where large segments of cities fall outside the realm of formal regulations,” says Smit.

“In going forward in new developments, planners and policy makers need to understand the physical links between the urban environment and health and well-being, and also take into account the participatory knowledge of those who live in such environments,” says Smit.

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