Health and sustainable development

Neighborhood environments and urban form

Crowded housing conditions in the Sao Rafael favela area of Guarulhos, Brazil
Crowded housing conditions in the Sao Rafael favela area of Guarulhos, Brazil
WHO/Anna Kari

Neighborhood features, such as residential density, land use mix and urban design have all been associated with multiple outcomes related to health through their impact on physical exercise, air pollution emissions and mobility.

Sprawling, low-density urban neighborhoods tend to limit mobility for groups lacking a personal vehicle, such as children, low-income earners, the elderly and disabled. This, in turn, can limit access to employment, education, leisure outlets, primary health care, fresh food stores, and commerce - important social determinants of health. Some studies show that low-density neighborhoods, by favouring private vehicle transport over active transport, are also associated with low levels of physical activity and higher obesity rates.

In contrast, compact urban neighborhoods that integrate urban residential and commercial areas and have strong public transport networks are thought to facilitate more active lifestyles, thus reducing air and noise pollution from vehicle travel. Compact urban forms also increase ease of access to facilities and services. There are, however, some disadvantages to dense urban planning. Noise levels can be greater due to overcrowding and proximity to traffic. Exposure to high noise levels can cause sleep disturbance, stress and annoyance, cardiovascular problems, and potential hearing loss.

See the Cities section of this website for further information on the health risks and benefits of neighbourhood environments and urban design strategies.