Higher-density cities are coming, from Sydney to Seattle. Can they be healthier cities, too?

Urban environments are becoming more crowded, and high-density developments are being planned and built to house all those new citizens. But how do we ensure we're building healthy, livable environments? The story below describes a collaborative research project involving the University of New South Wales, Landcom and the University of Technology Sydney to come up with the right answers. It's not entirely uncharted territory, but there's so much we don't know at this point. — Doug Peeples


"As Sydney's population grows, the way we live is changing. There is a lack of research in Australia and around the world on what is needed to ensure people can live healthy, sustainable lives in an increasingly urbanised environment." — John Brogden, Landcom managing director and CEO.

It's not just Sydney—or Seattle— of course.

What Brogden said likely applies to any city dealing with the challenges of how and where to house growing numbers of citizens in a way that incorporates their continued health and wellbeing into its development strategy.

That's why UNSW, UT Sydney and Landcom (a state-owned corporation responsible for developing sustainable, affordable residential communities in NSW) are collaborating to identify how to plan high-density developments in ways that mitigate health risks such as heart disease, mental illness, depression and other medical conditions.

The project's title, Translating Evidence to Support Planning Strategies for Healthier, Higher Density Living, is long but it does summarize what the collaboration is about. The study will incorporate existing research, the outcomes of Landcom high-density developments at Victoria Square and Green Square and generate new research. It's expected to continue for about two-and-a-half years.

As Susan Thompson, a UNSW professor and head of the university's City Wellbeing Program in its City Futures Research Centre, explained "This will build on some of the work that we have done here at UNSW on these localities, as well as creating healthy built environments more broadly.

There are a lot of questions we don't have answers to. This research will help us learn how we can design our cities to benefit people's health."

Thompson also acknowledged a growing trend toward apartment living — as opposed to owning a home — and its impact on health. "As apartment living becomes the norm for more and more of us, it is critical that planners and designers know how to make such developments supportive of healthy lifestyles.

We now know that the way we live in cities has an enormous impact on our health. The more we can incorporate being active and socially connected into the environments we encounter and use every day, we reduce our risk for chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and depression."