Healthier cities by design

How people move around in a city affects human and planetary health
By the SMU Corporate Communications team

Urban design can affect the health of both human beings and the planet. Compact cities with a well-developed system of public transportation system are healthier, compared with cities designed around the use of motor vehicles or those which are irregularly designed.

This is the key point made by Mark Stevenson, Professor of Urban Transport and Public Health at the University of Melbourne. He was speaking at the first public seminar organised by Singapore Management University  Urban Institute (UI) on 5 April since its launch in January 2024. The seminar was moderated by Winston Chow, Professor of Urban Climate at SMU’s College of Integrative Studies and the research Pillar Lead for Urban Infrastructure at UI.

As a trained epidemiologist, Prof Stevenson was particularly interested in how transportation systems used in urban centres around the world affected people’s health. He presented his study “A Global Analysis of Urban Design Types and Road Transport Injury: An Image Processing Study”, which was published in The Lancet.

Transport influences city typology

Prof Stevenson looked at the relationship between transportation systems and road accidents, air pollution and people’s risks of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, by the use of private cars. Through an imaging study of over 1,600 cities, his team identified nine major city types and found that the high transit city typology – as found in Europe, Japan and Singapore – showed the least impact in terms of road trauma. “A prime example of a high-transit city is Tokyo, with lots of public transport, limited private vehicle use and lots of walking,” he said.

Those showing the highest rate of road trauma are cities that tend to be sparse or informally designed with little public transport, as exemplified by cities in Myanmar, Cambodia, Pakistan and India, he said.

Downsides of driving

As many Australian cities are designed for motor car use, Prof Stevenson said, there is an urgent need to mitigate emissions by ICE vehicles. He is now studying how to use apps to incentivise motorists to drive better to cut emissions in Australia.

He also observed that reliance on electric vehicles is not necessarily healthier or more sustainable for cities that have large populations of electric vehicles (EVs). “The particulate matter coming from EVs is significantly more than that for vehicles with ICEs (Internal Combustible Engines) because of the friction of the tyres on the road,” he said. “Pedestrians are affected by the particulate matter generated and authorities still have to grapple with the congestion.”

Using smartphone data to track the use of amenities

A second seminar featuring Betty Wang, Assistant Professor of Economics from the University of Hong Kong, was held on 19 April to discuss “Valuing Urban Neighbourhood Amenities: Evidence from New York City’s Foot Traffic”.

Asst Prof Wang presented a novel measure to value urban amenities, using mobile phone-based foot traffic. For this ongoing study, she aims to construct an “Amenity Consumption Index,” modelled after the consumer price index, to measure people’s valuations for various amenities in New York City.

The amenities studied include restaurants, coffee shops, groceries, gyms, museums and parks, which are further categorised into residential and tourist venues. By assessing the demand for urban space and the provision of local public goods, she hopes to provide research on the allocation of resources. This seminar was moderated by SMU Assoc Prof of Economics Li Jing, also the Pillar Lead for Urban Growth at UI.

Both seminars saw highly engaged participation from the audience, who included researchers, policymakers in town planning and professionals from the property, transportation and infrastructure consultancies.

To find out more about UI’s seminars, please follow the SMU Urban Institute’s LinkedIn page