Healthy living in a healthy city

Healthy Urban Living is one of Utrecht University’s three sustainability themes. This research programme is led by Martin Dijst and Bert Brunekreef. ‘Urban living generally tempts people to behave unhealthily, but we believe cities offer lots of opportunities for a healthy lifestyle.’

Being outside in the fresh air can have a healing effect, as people knew a hundred years ago when patients with tuberculosis were cared for in sanatoria up in the Alps. But how healthy is living in a large, densely populated city? The Healthy Urban Living research theme is trying to find answers to this question and studying ways to promote the health of the city and its inhabitants.

Healthy Urban Living
Left: Prof. dr. Martin Dijst. Right: Prof. dr. ir. Bert Brunekreef

Numerous opportunities

Healthy Urban Living is an interfaculty and interuniversity research group headed by Professor Martin Dijst and Professor Bert Brunekreef. Dijst is Professor of Social Geography (Spatial Mobility and Urban Development chair) at the Faculty of Geosciences and conducts research into interactions between geographical environments. ‘That means a broad approach,’ says Dijst. ‘Social interactions, the built environment, but also processes of nature itself together combine to create numerous opportunities.’

Brunekreef is Professor of Environmental Epidemiology at the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences (IRAS), an interfaculty research institute linked to Utrecht University’s faculties of Veterinary Medicine, Medicine and Sciences. ‘I specialise in epidemiological studies into the effects of environmental factors on public health, with a special focus on air pollution. Geographical factors are very important in this respect.’

Unhealthy temptations

Large cities can cause health problems that may not be immediately apparent. ‘City dwellers are a very diverse group and often don’t know the people living around them, and this may make them feel lonely,’ says Dijst. ‘No longer feeling at home in your own city may cause stress. Cities also offer many visible unhealthy temptations. You see fast-food places wherever you go, but healthy food isn’t always easy to find. And although public transport is very accessible, walking or cycling are much healthier. However, cities also provide opportunities for a healthy lifestyle, and we are going to identify these opportunities.’

Healthy ageing

‘We are living in an age of healthy ageing ,’ says Brunekreef. ‘We all want to grow old as healthily as possible. I see keeping people independent and healthy for as long as possible as a challenge. Conducting urban studies into the effects of environmental factors on public health at a municipal level is especially important, given that the government is currently transferring health care to the municipal authorities. That will be a tough job.’

‘And although the population is becoming more individualistic, social networks will remain very important,’ says Dijst. ‘We are interested in the effect that social networks have on public health.’ Brunekreef adds, ‘People who have a good social network live considerably longer than people who don’t. And that’s a view backed up by statistics, which show that a good social life contributes to health and happiness.’

Strong team

‘The funding we have so far been awarded for this research is just a start,’ says Brunekreef. ‘The study will take another three years, and within that period we hope also to land a few large national and international grants. The study has been ongoing for a year now and we have built a strong team with clear affinities between the members.’

Dijst believes that a strong team is needed to continue the research. ‘Problems in society have to be considered from multiple perspectives,’ he says. ‘Therefore, all our current studies are multidisciplinary and require us to find crossovers between these different perspectives. That’s why our researchers come from various different faculties and even from outside the university, but we meet every month to discuss progress and also see each other outside these meetings. A team functions well only if the team members know each other and know what they can expect from each other.’