A man walks through Nyayo Gardens in Nakuru, Kenya

Nyayo Gardens in Nakuru, Kenya. Photo: Howard Cambridge / SEI

We live in a time of urbanization. Cities are growing ever bigger and more people are moving to live in them. If we are serious about sustainability, we need to create sustainable cities. What does that mean in practice?

When we think about environmental sustainability in cities, we usually focus on energy efficiency, resource conservation and circular economies. Unfortunately, plans to achieve these laudable goals typically result in making cities more densely populated. This can decrease a city’s resilience to withstand shocks and disasters such as flooding, heatwaves and pandemics. It can also negatively impact on the social aspects of city living, such as people’s satisfaction, experiences and perceptions of their everyday environments. These can be summed up as “urban wellbeing” or the “liveability” of cities.

At the core of delivering urban wellbeing is that residents live in clean, safe and healthy spaces. Beyond those basics, they should also have equal opportunities to live, work and move around in environments that promote healthy living. Research has shown the importance of being immersed in nature for our mental and spiritual wellbeing and physical health (Bertram and Rehdanz, 20151; Ahirrao and Khan, 20212). Environments that benefit our mental health allow us to realize our abilities, cope with the stresses of life, work productively and contribute to our community. Studies from around the world show that spending time in urban greenspace can reduce our stress (Roe et al., 20133), improve our cognitive performance (Berman et al., 20084), decrease depressive symptoms (Bratman et al., 20155) and increase relaxation (Neale et al., 20196). Even when we are not actually in urban greenspaces, we benefit from their presence in our wider environment, through their provision of a host of regulating services such as shade cooling, air quality improvement, noise buffering and flood mitigation.

Cycling in Udon Thani, Thailand

Schoolchildren cycling through greenspace in Udon Thani. Photo: Diane Archer / SEI.

Many regions of the world, particularly in the Global South, are experiencing rapid urbanization and this fast pace of change makes it hard for cities to develop in a sustainable way. City expansion is often at the expense of the natural or green areas surrounding them and pressure to maximize land use within the city limits means that urban greenspaces are often converted into built and paved areas. The negative impacts of this reduction in urban nature are long-term and difficult to reverse.

On the other hand, the necessity of adding to and improving infrastructure and services in cities as they grow could be used as an opportunity to support social and wellbeing aspects. To utilize that opportunity, we first need to understand what is required to deliver urban wellbeing. However, to date there has been little research that addresses that question in the Global South; where cultural and environmental conditions make for different challenges and potential solutions to those in the Global North.

New research by SEI published in the journal Frontiers in Sociology has started to fill that knowledge gap. The research explores the multiple dimensions of impact that city development has on residents’ wellbeing in low-middle-income countries (LMICs). Two rapidly growing “secondary” cities in different LMICs were assessed: Nakuru in Kenya, and Udon Thani in Thailand. For each, we addressed three interlinked questions:

What is a secondary city?

A secondary city is one that is smaller and of lower economic status than the main city or cities in that country or region. Secondary cities often get overlooked in research projects, but they will see much of the urban population growth over the coming years. At the same time, they may be under-resourced and facing climate challenges, such as drought and flooding, that will require significant adaptation measures, from infrastructure and housing to services and systems.

In many cases, secondary cities also present an opportunity to avoid the development mistakes of larger cities where urban expansion happened at a faster rate. Such rates of expansion can have negative impacts on the natural resources and ecosystem services that so many urban residents rely on to survive and thrive. Smaller cities also present the opportunity to foster relationships with local stakeholders from the municipal authorities to local civil society groups and community leaders.

  1. How are objective aspects of wellbeing related to subjective assessments of wellbeing (life satisfaction)?
  2. How does the quality of the urban environment affect subjective wellbeing?
  3. How can urban development be done better to improve wellbeing for all in an equitable way?

How we did it

We used two surveys in each city: a neighbourhood wellbeing survey and a survey of individual mood effects in different urban settings.

To assess subjective wellbeing (participants’ self-evaluation of life satisfaction), we carried out the neighbourhood wellbeing survey across a range of households, representing a cross-section of local environmental, social and economic conditions. We asked adult participants about the impact of eleven different environmental and social factors on their wellbeing, to assess both general wellbeing and perceived stress (how unpredictable, uncontrollable, or overloaded people find their lives).

To assess the impact of different types of urban spaces on mood, participants walked a set route between a busy public realm space (a market) and a quieter greenspace (a public park), with questionnaires used before and after the walk.

A busy street in central Udon Thani. Photo: Diane Archer / SEI.

The household survey was also used to measure objective wellbeing. We recorded quality-of-life indicators including access to basic needs resources (e.g. food, housing, income) and social attributes (education, health, political voice, social networks). We also calculated the relative affluence of each neighbourhood based on homeownership, employment status and job description.

We also measured the amount of greenspace available to residents in different neighbourhoods using Landsat imagery.

Case study city locations and surveyed neighbourhoods. The neigbourhood maps show relative greenness (based on satellite imagery). Source: http://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsoc.2021.729453/full

Similarities and differences between the cities

As a result of the research, we found that in Nakuru, informal and poorly implemented infrastructure has resulted in unequal access to the provision of basic services. Residents of informal districts had measurably lower objective and subjective wellbeing than residents of planned districts. Some of this was the result of poorer access to water, poorer water quality and greater solid waste pollution. However, some challenges are common to all, with limited water access and crime undermining wellbeing across all neighbourhoods.

In comparison, in Udon Thani , overall infrastructure and socio-economic conditions were largely unproblematic, with a significantly higher level of living conditions and economic prosperity than Nakuru. However, there were a greater number of wellbeing differences between neighbourhoods in Udon Thani due to variations in air quality, noise pollution and traffic congestion. It appears that, as relative affluence increases, marginal inequalities between neighborhoods have a more pronounced impact on wellbeing. This mirrors findings from other middle income countries which show that the wellbeing of residents in mid-affluent communities can be most improved by infrastructure availability and environmental improvements7

Unsurprisingly, in both locations, it appears that lacking basic infrastructure and employment uncertainty both have a significant negative psychological impact on daily life. Meanwhile, crime and anti-social behaviour are also linked to increased stress, with women experiencing this effect more than men. In fact, women’s stress was significantly higher than men’s in both the least affluent (Nakuru) and the most affluent (Udon Thani) neighbourhoods.

Effects eleven surveyed dimensions of socio-environmental conditions have upon objective wellbeing summed by neighbourhood (UT: Udon Thani; NK: Nakuru).

The value of greenspace

Overall, city form (the distribution of greenspace and other public realm spaces) had measurable effects on the subjective wellbeing and stress of residents, potentially undermining their long-term mental health.

The Kenyan case study showed that residents who make regular use of greenspace (more than 2 hours per week) had improved subjective wellbeing, irrespective of the condition of their neighbourhood. In Thailand, the surveys did not find an association between wellbeing improvements and greenspace use, and the young adults in Udon Thani who walked the set route preferred the sociable retail space over a city park. However, Udon Thani has a greater overall abundance and more equitable distribution of greenspace than Nakuru and these results may indicate that greenspace is appreciated and has less discernible mental health benefits when it is widely available.

Key findings and policy recommendations

The absence of basic infrastructure (including waste removal, water availability and quality) unsurprisingly causes significant stress for city residents. However, once these services are in place, smaller variations (inequalities) in social (crime, tenure) and environmental (noise, air quality) conditions begin to play a greater role in determining differences in subjective wellbeing across a city. The three main messages that emerged are:

  • spending time in urban greenspaces can mitigate the stressful impacts of city living even for residents of informal neighbourhoods
  • public realm places, whether green or built, that enable social interactions which support wellbeing are important
  • there is a need for diversity and equity in the provision of public realm spaces to ensure social and spatial justice.

These findings strengthen the need to promote long-term livability in the urban planning of low- and middle-income countries, alongside economic growth, environmental sustainability, and resilience.

Delivering basic needs infrastructure and services for all residents must always be the primary city development priority. However, once that is in place, the distribution and management of greenspace and other sites for social interaction require greater attention. These are important for subjective wellbeing in addition to the physical health benefits, ecosystem services and improved local prosperity they generate. Delivering these features more equitably across cities should be a key consideration for planners.

Neighbourhood greening also needs to be culturally appropriate and relevant for local communities including the urban poor. To do this, city planners need greater access to neighbourhood scale data to truly understand the impacts of urban form on residents’ health and city function.

Looking for more details? Read the scientific paper about this work.


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