‘The Healthy City’ – findings on the built environment’s impact on physical and mental health

Inés Buetow Peláez describes the work she conducted as a Research Analyst during her Microinternship at GCHU

Inés Buetow Peláez

MPhil Global Area Studies student, University of Oxford

Email: gchu@kellogg.ox.ac.uk 

During my micro-internship placement at the Global Centre on Healthcare and Urbanisation, I analysed a wide variety of reviews to contribute to the systematic scoping review providing evidence for the Commission on Creating Healthy Cities. My focus lay primarily on articles within that field of urban morphology and planning as factors in determining urban health, and I was able to apply my background knowledge from my undergraduate degree to the analysis of these reviews set in a global context.

Throughout the course of my placement, I analysed 18 review studies ranging from built environmental correlates of older adults’ total physical activity and walking (Barnett et al., 2017) to how neighbourhood environments can facilitate management of diseases like osteoarthritis (Bowden, 2021) or type II diabetes mellitus (Dendup et al., 2018), and including scoping reviews of the built environment’s impact on adults’ and children’s mental health (Penkalla and Kohler, 2014; Sampson et al., 2020). The studies examining the correlation between the built environment and residents’ overall health (i.e. Ellena et al., 2020; Kim & Yoo, 2019; Ige-Elegbede et al., 2020) included findings on both their physical and mental health.

I noticed that many of the reviews revealed largely inconclusive findings with regards to the benefits of different urban morphology on residents’ mental health, whereas findings on physical health were often considered easier to determine (see Ellena et al., 2020; Kim & Yoo, 2019; Ige-Elegbede et al., 2020). I also noted that the reviews involving urban residents’ personal perceptions and interpretations appeared more difficult to combine with the analytical approach characteristic of medical journal articles than those which involved more clearly quantifiable data. From an interdisciplinary perspective, I thus found it very interesting to observe the different ways of combining the many different fields and methodologies related to health in an urban setting.

My research also contributed to my own understanding of how the built environment affects our physical and mental health, a topic that I became particularly interested in after visiting the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Living with Buildings’ exhibition during my undergraduate studies in London.

I am very grateful to have been able to contribute to The Commission on Creating Healthy Cities, since it is a project that I am very interested in both academically and personally, and I am very much looking forward to seeing the interactive, open-data toolkit for policy makers, practitioners, and the public. I was also able to gain an insight into a wide variety of studies regarding urban health, which also inspired me to incorporate some of these ideas into my own MPhil research.

Finally, I would also like to thank Dr Georgia Richards, Robert Weavers, and my fellow interns for making this a great experience! I have really enjoyed the opportunity to take part in this micro-internship placement and I hope that I was able to make a valuable contribution.


Barnett, D. W., Barnett, A., Nathan, A., van Cauwenberg, J., & Cerin, E. (2017). Built environmental correlates of older adults’ total physical activity and walking: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/S12966-017-0558-Z

Bowden, J. L., Hunter, D. J., & Feng, Y. (2021). How can neighborhood environments facilitate management of osteoarthritis: A scoping review. Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism, 51(1), 253–265. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.SEMARTHRIT.2020.09.019

Dendup, T., Feng, X., Clingan, S., & Astell-Burt, T. (2018). Environmental Risk Factors for Developing Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.3390/IJERPH15010078

Ellena, M., Breil, M., & Soriani, S. (2020). The heat-health nexus in the urban context: A systematic literature review exploring the socio-economic vulnerabilities and built environment characteristics. Urban Climate, 34, 100676. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.UCLIM.2020.100676

Ige-Elegbede, J., Pilkington, P., Orme, J., Williams, B., Prestwood, E., Black, D., & Carmichael, L. (2020). Designing healthier neighbourhoods: a systematic review of the impact of the neighbourhood design on health and wellbeing. https://doi.org/10.1080/23748834.2020.1799173

Kim, D.H., Yoo, S. (2019). How Does the Built Environment in Compact Metropolitan Cities Affect Health? A Systematic Review of Korean Studies. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 16(16):2921. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16162921

Penkalla, A. M., & Kohler, S. (2014). Urbanicity and mental health in Europe: A systematic review. European Journal of Mental Health, 9(2), 163–177. https://doi.org/10.5708/EJMH.9.2014.2.2

Sampson, L., Ettman, C.K., Galea, S. (2020). Urbanization, urbanicity, and depression: a review of the recent global literature. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 33(3):233-244. https://doi.org/10.1097/YCO.0000000000000588