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New study could change urban planning policy

For many years, the received wisdom about urban living was that crowded cities were bad for health and detrimental to the development of communities. By contrast, it was assumed, life was much better out in the leafy suburbs and best of all in the countryside.

This kind of thinking has informed planning and social attitudes alike. For a  great many people, moving to the countryside to enjoy the quiet life and some scenery was the way to be, with lots of fresh air and cosy communities. Planners such as Ebenezer Howard founded garden cities as an alternative to the squalor of the inner city.

Even now, surveys appear to link greater happiness with low-density living. Last week the Office for National Statistics published its happiness index, which showed that the people most content with their lot tended to live out in the country. Craven in North Yorkshire, a district that includes the town of Settle and much of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, topped the list, while neighbouring Richmondshire was also in the top five. By contrast, the unhappiest place was Wolverhampton and three of the five least cheerful boroughs were in London - Lewisham, Hackney and Greenwich.

However, at the same time thousands of people are moving into high-density areas in the heart of big cities. Places like the centre of Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham have been transformed in the last couple of decades and urbanised lifestyles have proved highly popular with young professionals. 

This apparently contradictory trend - reversing years of the 'flight to the suburbs' - may not, however, be so counter-logical as it appears. A new study has threatened to overturn conventional wisdom about city living by indicating that, in fact, it is those living in areas of high population density - defined as more than 32 homes per hectare - who live better. 

According to this research by Oxford and Hong Kong universities, the most urbanised people suffer less obesity, exercise more and have more social interaction with their neighbours than suburbanites. With less car usage and ownership, walking and public transport use contribute to greater physical mobility. 

Speaking to the Thompson Reuters Foundation about the findings, co-author of the study Chinmoy Sarkar said: "If we can convince policymakers that this is a public health opportunity, we can build well-designed communities, and in the long term, you have made a big difference in health outcomes.

"With evidence, we can plan multi-functional, attractive neighbourhoods that promote physical activity, promote social interaction, and shield from negatives such as pollution and feeling unsafe."

All this may have significant implications for insulation fitters. The type and thickness of insulation may be less in the most urban settings, as the 'heat trap' effect makes these warmer than the periphery of cities. However, the reverse will be true for tall residential buildings, due to their elevated exposure to low air temperatures and high wind chill levels. 

If the report has a significant influence on planning policy, it may be that the government, city region mayors and local councils set higher limits on the level of residential building density. Inner London is already very crowded - the capital had 161 council wards with a population density over 100 per hectare at the time of the 2011 census compared with just 29 in the rest of the country - but it seems even the capital could be set to build at a yet higher density to accommodate its soaring population and high housing demand.


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