Urban and economic growth bring mixed health dividends

05 September 2018

Economic growth is benefitting the wealthy and increasing the gap in health equality, according to new cross-European research. 

The movement of people from the countryside into towns and cities appears to bring mixed blessings for communities and risks widening the health gap between the well-off and the disadvantaged.

In what is thought to be the first study of its type, researchers led by Glasgow Caledonian University’s Dr Sebastien Chastin, are warning policy-makers and planners to make sure that increased prosperity promotes physical activity and wellbeing across society as a whole and not just among the more affluent. 

The research is published in Cities, the international journal of urban policy and planning. The authors studied a mass of European survey data covering more than 51,000 individuals in 259 regions across 24 European countries.

The researchers cite increasingly affluent neighbourhoods where facilities for healthy, physical activity including cycling and jogging benefit from investment. On the other hand, population densification and the increase in shops and offices can often see people switching from relatively healthy outdoor work to production line or desk-bound jobs. The paper reports that a recent study found 18.5% adult Europeans sitting for more than seven-and-a-half hours a day.

In other instances, older inhabitants were more likely to live in flats and apartments with no gardens where they might get outdoor exercise.  Higher levels of traffic and crime in built-up areas are also thought to be a disincentive to older people getting physical activity out-of-doors.

It’s reported that people with a lower socioeconomic background have access to fewer acres of parks and to parks with lower quality, maintenance, and safety than those with a higher socio-economic background. They are also less likely to take part in organised sports, and especially in sports requiring specific and costly equipment.

Dr Chastin said: “Population densification and economic growth appears to influence Europeans' exercise and sitting time significantly. Urban and economic growth may encourage more healthy living with greater levels of physical activity…but not among the most vulnerable.

“To prevent a continued widening of the health gap, policy makers in countries undergoing population and economic growth should ensure that increased prosperity stimulates physical activity and healthy living across all sectors of the population.”