Neighbourhoods and Communities

Neighbourhoods and Communities

The Neighbourhoods and Communities programme studies the ways in which people and places interact to affect health. Our overarching aim is to understand how urban environments are, or can be modified to be, both salutogenic (i.e. helping to create and maintain good health) and equigenic (i.e. helping to reduce and prevent health inequalities).

There is a long history of research which shows that whilst 'who you are' is really important for determining your chances of good health 'where you are' also matters. A lot of research has shown that characteristics of the 'neighbourhood' seem to affect health and health inequalities. In theory then, we could use the neighbourhood environment as a lever to protect health and reduce inequality; if we create the right kind of neighbourhood we might reap public health benefits.

In reality however, we have little robust evidence about what the best intervention or investment in neighbourhoods would be. There are many reasons for this and here are some of them.

  • Much of the existing research has focused on 'neighbourhood' as a fixed unit. It has assumed that a geographical area around the home is the key environment of influence, and sees towns and cities as mosaics of neighbourhoods with little interaction between them. In reality, many (though not all) people move around their towns and cities; they work, they go to school, they visit different places to do different things. It is very difficult to conceive, deliver and evaluate neighbourhood-based interventions without understanding these movements.
  • To find out whether changes in urban environment can lead to improvements in health and reductions in inequalities we need to track change in environment over time. That may not be too difficult in one or two locations, but to understand whether a change has similar impacts in many or even all urban environments we need to examine its impact in lots of places at once. That is a much more difficult task.
  • Our theories about the relationships between people and the places they live recognise a complex, dynamic, inter-connection between the two; they shape and influence each other. Yet, a lot of empirical research has sought to separate the influences on health which are about 'who you are' as an individual, and those which are about 'where you live'. This leads to the mistaken idea that simply changing something about a neighbourhood environment will affect everyone there.
  • In an ideal world, researchers would be able to make changes to urban envrionments where and when we wished, a bit like in a drug trial. Of course, researchers don't have that kind of control! Some urban environments change very little over long periods of time, others experience multiple changes very rapidly. This makes it hard to get evidence about the consequences of urban change.

Our programme aims to solve these problems to enable research by us and others, which will lead to urban environments that are as salutogenic and equigenic as possible. We see new technologies as potentially useful. These technologies include: the ability to track people's movements in and around towns and cities; digitally map data to automatically monitor and detect change in our built environment; using biomarkers to help assess how the characteristics of places get 'under the skin'; and using computers to simulate interactions between people and place, allowing us to 'test' our understanding and intervention ideas.

Our objectives are to

  • identify and understand which existing built environments host populations that experience good health and narrow health inequalities.
  • develop methods to detect change over time in the built environment across multiple villages, towns and cities and use these to help tell us what impact the changes have on health and behaviour.
  • examine how changes over time to social and physical environments affect health and inequalities, asking what are the specific mechanisms and pathways through which these changes have an impact, who is most affected and over what time scales.
  • explore how people, especially children, use and experience their villages, towns and cities, and how built environment and urban form affects what they do, where they go and how much physical activity they get.
  • explore the potential for agent based models and other kinds of stimulation to shed light on how and where urban environments might be altered to maximise health and minimise health inequalities.


Our research is currently organised in three strands:

        Movement and physical activity within urban landscapes

        Detecting and evaluating change in the built environment

        Seeking salutogenic and equigenic urban environments



MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit