WHealth modelling: An individual-effects modelling methodology for improving the Health and Wealth of cities

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Cardiff School of Planning and Geography


In a surprise neo-classical move, the city is re-emerging as a more appropriate scale of governance than the nation state for delivering many dimensions of social order. City governance delivers crucial interventions for achieving economic, social, health and environmental goals. However, the methodology underpinning much contemporary urban policy and planning research is unfit for purpose: there is a wide gulf between academic researchers and practitioners. Senior professionals, policy makers and government advisors find it difficult to obtain evidence-based answers to some of the most obvious questions relating to the configuration and governance of cities. For example, what effect does density have on health? What is the optimal scale and pattern for mixing housing for different income groups? How much green space should be supplied and in what pattern, to encourage active walking and reduce obesity?

We propose that the fundamental knowledge-base guiding city-scale governance should come from statistical models of individual effects. These include well-formed statistical models of individual income, wealth, happiness, health and so on - (which we designate WHealth models). In the current phase of work for which we seek funding, we propose to concentrate on health as a primary focus and wealth as a secondary focus. This reflects data availability and the time and financial constraints of the funds on offer. In subsequent phases we expect to explore additional dimensions of wealth modelling and also 'happiness' impacts as extensive databases on quality of life become more available.

Using our own innovative network-modelling software (spatial Domain Network Analysis - sDNA) to create very detailed measures of urban accessibility, and borrowing methodology from epidemiology, we propose to use multi-scale, multivariate statistical models to measure the impact of urban configurations (shape, density, road grid design, land-use mix etc) on obesity, mental health, cardio-vascular health and other conditions of individuals (statistically holding constant other determinants of health such as previous medical condition, socioeconomics and even genetics). We also measure the independent effects of policy designation areas and special fiscal and infrastructure programmes (such as regeneration schemes) in these models of individual health. The models will be based on a cohort of 500,000 people currently signed up for the UKBiobank study run from Oxford University, thus linking a world-class epidemiology and public health study to a state-of-art built-environment profiling study. This will deliver the best evidence available anywhere in the world for healthy city planning, policy and detailed design.

Linked to the analysis of health, we will use similar models to measure the effects of urban policy and design on the wealth of individuals, measured via house prices. Doing this for the same cohort of 500,000 individuals gives a unique triangulation in the measurement of the individual 'well-being' effects of urban planning and policy on two key dimensions of urban life (health and wealth). It has the potential to fundamentally change the way urban policy and planning impact is thought about and measured in the UK and worldwide.

Planned Impact

The project will deliver: (a) National base-line database for monitoring the impact of urban policy and planning based on an unprecedented individual-effects level of analysis; (b) the largest and most sophisticated research base in the world for examining first cause (built-environment, genetics, socio-economics) affects on health in a way that isolates the affects of changes in the built environment caused by market forces and government policy; (c) the first scientific national study to measure the net effect of public goods and externalities on individual health and to analyse wealth-health correlations at an individual (rather than ecological) level; (d) an international network of high level leaders and agencies committed to exploring and developing this transformative idea in their own countries. It has the potential to fundamentally change the way urban policy and planning impact is thought about and measured in the UK and worldwide. The proposal delivers under the second ESRC priority area: influencing behaviour and informing interventions.

A high profile international workshop will be held in year 2 to disseminate the findings and establish collaboration for further phases of the work. This will be co-organised by Cardiff University (School of Planning and Geography and Medical School); UNHABITAT, Nairobi; the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), London; Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), London; and the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Architecture and Medical School.

Scale-up and international roll-out will focus on the UK and China during the ESRC-funded phase of the work and the China dissemination will be coordinated through the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Architecture and the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design, China's premier urban planning consultancy with strong links to the Ministry of Construction in Beijing.


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