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Green cities, healthy cities: urban green spaces, human health and wellbeing in the Global South

Dr Martin Dallimer (SEE), Dr Helen Elsey (Nuffield Centre for International Health and Development)

Project partner(s): UNHabitat (CASE)

Contact email:

Human health and wellbeing can be described as the ‘ultimate ecosystem service’. Indeed, natural environments, and the ecosystem services they provide, are recognised as crucial for both mental and physical wellbeing. However, despite the many reviews and opinion pieces on the topic, the link between health, well-being and the natural world has yet to be fully elucidated particularly in low-income countries (LICs) in the Global South, and evidence of the link between biodiversity per se and human health and wellbeing is limited at best. This limits attempts to identify appropriate interventions that could bring environmental, health and social benefits in LICs.

Over half the world’s population now lives in towns and cities. With the degree of urbanisation increasing there is mounting concern about the effects on natural environments, biodiversity and ecosystem service provision. This is of particular concern as natural environments, and the ecosystem services they provide, are recognised as crucial for both mental and physical well-being. Towns and cities therefore represent key locations for understanding and quantifying the links between health and the natural world.

To date, what little research there has been on health, wellbeing, biodiversity and ecosystems has largely taken place in the developed world. Patterns of urbanisation are very different in the Global South, where informal settlements, lack of planning and limited access to public services all impact on residents’ quality of life in urban areas, while the increasing populations in rural zones lead to a creeping urbanisation in the countryside. With the changes to diet and lifestyle that urbanisation brings, particularly reduced access to affordable fruit and vegetables and limited opportunities for physical activity, urban poor communities are increasingly experiencing the debilitating and costly effects of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and mental ill-health. Yet, opportunities for improving urban residents’ access to ecosystem services exist, with increasing attention being paid to initiatives, such as urban agriculture and the maintenance/provision of urban green and blue infrastructure, particularly in slum neighbourhoods. However, the current evidence base of these associations and interventions is limited. Understanding associations between natural environments, ecosystem services and non-communicable diseases will ensure that cities can grow in ways in which damage to health is minimised and proposed development interventions will benefit the poorest. There is therefore a substantial research and knowledge gap which this studentship will begin to fill.


The studentship will focus on the role that natural environments might play in reducing or exacerbating a range of non-communicable diseases (e.g. diabetes, obesity, heart conditions),neglected health conditions (e.g. mental health, accidental death or injury) and wider social and economic impacts in selected Global South cities.

In particular, the studentship will take a multi-scale approach to understand links between the natural world and health, including addressing some or all of the following topics:

  1. At the global scale, what are the relationships between the extent and type of natural environments/green spaces within cities and metrics of public health? Here the student will make use of large scale, but often complex, datasets such as WorldPop, WHO’s STEPS Non-communicable disease risk factor survey (, Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) and regional/global maps of land cover/ecosystem type and quality to quantify broad scale patterns linking health outcomes to the natural world. This will enable exploration of associations with types of natural environment and key risk factors such as diet, physical activity, tobacco use and conditions both communicable (e.g. TB, gastro-intestinal disease) and non-communicable (e.g. diabetes, heart disease and mental ill-health).
  2. At the scale of an individual neighbourhood, city or cluster of cities, examine local drivers of health outcomes, and the role for the natural environment in mitigating poor health, especially among disadvantage and marginalised communities. This could include the identification and mapping of different forms of urban agriculture or green space initiatives and exploration of their health, social and economic impacts on urban poor households and communities.
  3. For individual households, characterise exposure to the benefits and hazards associated with greenspaces and how that impacts (through perceptions or objective data) on health metrics
  4. Using monetary and non-monetary valuation methods to quantify public preferences for elements of the natural world within a study city/neighbourhood.
  5. Assessing the economic, health and quality of life impact of interactions with nature in a multi-ethnic, developing world context.

Depending on the area of interest of the student, field based elements of the project could take place in various locations in south Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, including Kathmandu, Dhaka, Nairobi or Addis Ababa, where the supervisors have excellent networks of contacts. The student will also have the opportunity to work with UNHabitat, either in their head offices in Nairobi, or elsewhere.

In all cases, the student will be working to establish the links between the type and extent of natural habitats, biodiversity, ecosystem function and service delivery, via, for example targeting the importance of ecological concepts such as diverse functional traits within the animal and plant communities and issues of scale, size and connectivity of natural areas.

Potential for high impact outcome

Underpinning the putative health and well-being benefits of interactions with, and exposure to, the natural world has become a central aim of NERC's recent grant calls and research outputs. This studentship will feed into this rapidly developing research field. The link with UNHABITAT will ensure that findings speak to issues of importance to, and are disseminated to, researchers and policy makers at a national LIC, and global level. The research will therefore have immediate policy-relevant findings, and we anticipate the project generating several papers with at least one being suitable for submission to a high impact journal


The student will work under the supervision of Dr Martin Dallimer, within the Sustainability Research Institute in the School of Earth and Environment and Dr Helen Elsey who is based in the Nuffield Centre for International Health and Development (NCIHD). The project therefore provides an excellent opportunity to gain skills in environmental, social and public health sciences, such as ecosystem service quantification and valuation, spatial analyses and field techniques, including social science methodologies and health intervention assessments. NCIHD run an annual course on the analysis of large household survey data sets, such as DHS, this will be invaluable to the student in addressing topic 1. Where applicable, the student may also undertake training in remote sensing methods and the analysis of large datasets.

Supervision will involve regular meetings between co-supervisors and regular visits to field study sites. It is anticipated that the student will spend between 6 and 9 months gathering primary data.


Dallimer M, Irvine KN, Skinner AMJ, Davies ZG, Rouquette JR, Maltby LL, Warren PH, Armsworth PR, Gaston KJ. (2012). Biodiversity and the Feel-Good Factor: Understanding Associations between Self-Reported Human Well-being and Species Richness. Bioscience 62:47-55.

Dallimer M, Rouquette JR, Skinner AMJ, Armsworth PR, Maltby LM, Warren PH, Gaston KJ. (2012). Contrasting patterns in species richness of birds, butterflies and plants along riparian corridors in an urban landscape. Diversity and Distributions 18:742-753.

Dallimer M, Tinch D, Hanley N, Irvine KN, Rouquette JR, Warren PH, Maltby L, Gaston KJ, Armsworth PR. (2014). Quantifying preferences for the natural world using monetary and non-monetary techniques. Conservation Biology 28:404-413.

Elsey H, Manandah S, Sah D, Khanal S, MacGuire F, King R, Wallace H, Baral S. (2016) Public Health Risks in Urban Slums: Findings of the Qualitative ‘Healthy Kitchens: Healthy Cities’ Study in Kathmandu, Nepal. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0163798

Elsey H, Murray J, Bragg R. (2016) Green Fingers: Clear Minds prescribing ‘care farming’ for mental illness. British Journal of General Practice. DOI: 10.3399/bjgp16X683749

Elsey H, Thomson DR, Lin R-Y, Maharjan U, Agarwal S, Newell J. (2015) Addressing Inequities in Urban Health: Do decision-makers have the data they need? Journal of Urban Health 93: 526-537

Hartig T, Mitchell R, de Vries S, Frumkin H. (2014). Nature and health. Annual Revue of Public Health 35: 207–228.

McHale MR, Bunn DN, Pickett STA, Twine W. (2013). Urban ecology in a developing world: why advanced socioecological theory needs Africa. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11:556-564.

Mkwambisi DD, Fraser EDG, Dougill AJ. (2011). Urban agriculture and poverty reduction: Evaluating how food production in cities contributes to food security, employment and income in Malawi. Journal of International Development 23:181-203.

Schwarz N, Moretti M, Bugalho MN, Davies ZG, Haase D, Hack J, Hof A, Melero Y, Pett TJ, Knapp S. (2017). Understanding biodiversity-ecosystem service relationships in urban areas: A comprehensive literature review. Ecosystem Services 27:161–171.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Agriculture
  • Anthropology
  • Biodiversity
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Biology
  • Conservation
  • Conservation biology
  • Ecology
  • Environmental conservation
  • Environmental management
  • Environmental science
  • Geography
  • Health psychology
  • Natural resource management
  • Natural sciences
  • Remote sensing
  • Spatial ecology
  • Statistics
  • Sustainability
  • Sustainability and environmental management