Situating the Healthy Cities CityLab


The Healthy Cities CityLab is focussed on the relationship between the urban environment and health in Cape Town. Cape Town has a particularly large and complex burden of disease, and extremely high levels of health inequity. The urban environment has an enormous impact on health and wellbeing, but these links are not well understood, and the new built environments that are currently being created continue to be unconducive to good health and wellbeing. The Healthy Cities CityLab was initiated in 2009 in response to this, in order to bring together researchers from different disciplines to investigate the relationship between the urban environment and health in Cape Town and how healthier urban environments can be created.


Particularly important partners in this process have been the Chronic Diseases Initiative in Africa (with its focus on non-infectious diseases), the Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine (with its focus on physical activity and health) and the Children’s Institute (with an interest in child health). We are also collaborating with the University of Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia. Warren Smit is the co-ordinator of the Healthy Cities CityLab. Other key participants have included Vanessa Watson (School of Architecture Planning and Geomatics at UCT), Ariane de Lannoy (formerly of the Children’s Institute, now of the Poverty and Inequality Initiative at UCT), Naomi Levitt (Chronic Diseases Initiative in Africa), Vicki Lambert (Department of Human Biology, UCT), and Robert Dover (University of Antioquia, Medellin, Colombia).


Objectives and achievements

Preparing training materials on creating healthy urban environments is an important focus of the CityLab. In July 2014, a one-week course on urbanization and health was convened with the University of the Western Cape’s School of Public Health. The participants were public health officials from all three levels of government.


Furthermore, and linked to the Healthy Cities CityLab, a series of “Urban Child” seminars (with a total of 11 speakers) were co-hosted with the Children’s Institute, and a two-day conference on Healthy Cities for Children was held in January 2014. These events involved engagement between academics, officials and civil society about what practically can be done to create healthier urban environments. Also linked to the Healthy Cities CityLab, was the Alcohol, Poverty and Development in South Africa project, a collaborative research project with Kings College London. A special issue of the South African Geographical Journal on alcohol in Cape Town was produced, and an alcohol policy workshop with key stakeholders was held in November 2013.


Much of the literature on the relationship between the urban environment and health and on how to create healthy urban environments is based on evidence from the global North, and is only partially relevant to the context of cities such as Cape Town. Undertaking primary research has therefore been a key objective amongst the goals of the CityLab. Starting in 2011, a collaborative research programme was carried out, with workshops in various neighbourhoods of Khayelitsha. The workshops followed the “body mapping” methodology, in which participants trace the outlines of their body and then annotate this tracing to represent different aspects of their health and wellbeing. A number of research outputs based on this research have already been published and more publications are planned for 2015.

Through participation in the Global Research Network on Urban Health Equity (GRNUHE), the Healthy Cities CityLab group has also been able to link up with institutions elsewhere in the world and contribute to, and engage with, the global research agenda on urban health. Warren Smit, for example, was the lead writer of a paper on urban planning/design and urban health for GRNUHE, published in the Journal of Urban Health.


Selected Healthy Cities CityLab Publications


Book chapters:

Smit, W., de Lannoy, A., Dover, R.V.H., Lambert, E.V., Levitt, N., & Watson, V. (2014) ‘Good houses make good people’: Making knowledge about health & environment in Cape Town. In Cooper, B. & Morrell, R. (Eds.), Africa-centred knowledges: Crossing fields and worlds (pp. 142-162). London: James Currey.


Journal articles:

Smit, W., de Lannoy, A., Dover, R.V.H., Lambert, E.V., Levitt, N. , & Watson, V. (in press). Making unhealthy places: The built environment and non-communicable diseases in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Health & Place.

Smit, W., Hancock, T., Kumaresen, J., Santos-Burgoa, C., Sanchez-Kobashi Meneses, R., & Friel, S. (2011). Toward a research and action agenda on urban planning/design and health equity in cities in low and middle-income countries. Journal of Urban Health, 88(5), 875-885.

Smit, W., & Parnell, S. (2012). Urban sustainability and human health: An African perspective. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 4(4), 443-450.


Conference papers:

Smit, W., & Watson, V. (2011). The African Centre for Cities’ Healthy Cities CityLab: Understanding urban health in the global South. In Cities, health and well-being: Conference compendium (pp. 17-18). London: London School of Economics and Political Science/ Alfred Herrhausen Society.