What does a healthy and liveable city look like? To what extent is the well-being of urban populations, and their interaction with the local environment, shaped by urban form? The city of Udon Thani in Northeastern Thailand provides the ideal setting to help answer these questions.

As a comparatively small city of approximately 135,000 residents, Udon benefits from numerous public spaces, but also exposure to environmental challenges such as drought and flooding, and increasing traffic. The city is a gateway to Laos, with Vientiane only 80 kilometres away, and will eventually be a part of the Thailand highspeed rail project.

Through the City Health and Well-being Initiative (CHeW), SEI is working with residents and municipal authorities to understand how different spaces in the city are used, in addition to local environmental priorities, to understand how the city’s environment affects levels of well-being.

In the face of an ageing population, the city administration is promoting a ‘healthy city’ agenda with initiatives that include health care for all, and is additionally encouraging cycling and walking. There are three large water bodies which serve as public parks, a weekly walking street, and cycling lanes around the city. The city’s 103 registered communities each have their own community leaders that meet once a month at the municipality for updates on community and city issues and activities.

SEI and the municipality partnered to identify eight communities in which to carry out the research activities. The research was divided into four components. The first, carried out in late 2018, was a survey of 600 Udon Thani residents to assess their perception of their overall well-being, their perception of their stress levels, and their beliefs regarding the role of humans and preservation of the environment. The survey also aimed to explore the accessibility and use of local green spaces for recreational and other purposes, and whether survey participants considered their daily lives to be affected by environmental problems.

The second component consisted of a participatory mapping process (known as Participatory GIS or PGIS) with 500 residents. Presenting residents with a satellite image of the local area around their community, respondents were asked to pinpoint locations used for exercise, socializing and relaxation, as well as locations they considered stressful, and to explain why these sites were used as such. This produced a map that identified the preferred locations for the named activities, as well as the sites that could be improved to reduce stress levels. The figure below is an example of the resulting maps, representing the city inside its ring road. The green and yellow labels indicate Nong Prajak and Nong Bua, two of the city’s lakeside parks, where residents congregate for exercise (green) and relaxation (yellow). The orange labels indicate places for socializing (clustered around the shopping district), while the dark orange/red labels are stressful locations – predominantly the main arterial roads.

PGIS Map of Udon Thani. Photo: SEI

The third component consists of citizen science projects that aim to address information gaps and increase residents’ understanding of a topic of local importance. In a series of community-level focus groups held in early 2019, waste management was frequently identified as an environmental concern – in particular, littering, and non-segregation of waste. In the context of increasing national awareness in Thailand in regard to the negative impacts of plastic pollution, this finding creates an opportunity to engage with households to better understand waste streams in terms of quantity and type in order to foster recycling and composting initiatives. CHeW will work with residents to devise tailored research questions to better understand and address these issues.

The fourth and final component is ongoing and seeks to understand the link between environmental conditions and impacts on the human body, using heart rates as an indicator for stress. Residents are being asked to walk a pre-defined route from an area considered as stressful according to the PGIS (such as a busy road crossing) to an area identified as relaxing (a park), while wearing a heart rate monitor. This will allow an examination of whether urban environments can have positive or negative physiological impacts on the citizens who live and work in them.

Together, these four components will provide a better understanding of how Udon Thani residents perceive, use, and are affected by, their urban environment. The data can be used to pinpoint the areas of the city that cause negative impacts on health and well-being such as stress, as well as the areas that are used for relaxation. Actions taken based on the results could be expanded or replicated as a model for other urban areas. While Udon Thani is a relatively small city compared to Thailand’s other urban centres, and provides many amenities for its residents, as it continues to grow it is facing many of the same challenges other urban areas in Asia face, regardless of size. By collaborating with residents to identify now what makes the city liveable, SEI can work with the municipality and residents to identify ways to preserve and reinforce its liveable aspects, and address those that negatively impact health and well-being, for a more sustainable future for the city.