Urbanization and Wellbeing in Africa

Urban Health and the Physical Environment

The Center’s research has over the last 15 years provided a window into the plight of the nearly one billion urban slum dwellers, the extent of intra urban inequities and the gradual erosion of the urban advantage in health in
Africa. We have also demonstrated the positive impact of increased attention and investment by governments and development partners in improving the living condition of slum residents. Emerging challenges such as security
could, however, continue to threaten gains made in improving slum living conditions. Slum growth seems to be an inevitability for sub-Saharan Africa’s rapidly growing cities, and poor health outcomes among slum dwellers will
increasingly influence overall urban and national health indicators. The dearth of evidence as to what works for slum communities demands a sharper focus on systems that can -and should- generate health and improve wellbeing.

With an overarching goal to characterize and understand the state and future of Africa’s urbanization, this Unit will work in three programmatic areas:

The signature issue for this Unit will be understanding and developing slum systems for health and wellbeing. We aim to clarify the role of slums as a feature of Africa’s urban spaces and determinant of overall urban well-being. This program will seek to map and track slum growth in Africa’s new and small towns, and deepen our understanding of slum-based and intra-slum inequalities in health, education and socio-economic status, and the impact of
slum residence on health and socio-economic trajectories over the life course. The program will also aim to characterize service delivery systems, and develop and assess service delivery models that are responsive to the slum context.

Through a program of work on environmental impacts on health and wellbeing in urban contexts, we will expand the scope of our existing research on air pollution and solid waste management to other environmental risks. We will aim to understand how key environmental risks affect health and wellbeing; investigate strategies to mitigate key environmental challenges facing urban populations; and understand the contribution of the urban built environment to physical and mental health and wellbeing. The program will also advance knowledge on how complex urban systems interact to create environments that promote or harm health and wellbeing.

The third program of work will be on the causes, course and consequences of rapid urbanization. This program represents an extension of our existing research into the pace and drivers of urbanization across Africa. We aim to further explore urban growth in small towns, examine regional perspectives of migration and linkages to urbanization, and contribute to the better definition of urban typologies in Africa. We are also seeking improved understanding of the direct and indirect impacts of rural-urban migration on urban support systems.

Featured Project

The AIR (Air pollution Interdisciplinary Research) Network

Program: Urbanization and Wellbeing in Africa

Air pollution is a severe issue for human health, in particular for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as preterm birth. The Global Burden of Disease 2015 study estimated that PM2.5, fine particulate matter, was associated with 920,000 premature deaths annually in Africa. PM-related health effects also negatively impact the resilience, productivity, and well-being of people, putting extra burden on national economies due to health costs and loss of productivity. Outdoor and indoor PM concentrations are particularly high in Africa’s informal settlements, which are often located between roads and industry, and are characterized by housing with limited ventilation and wood, charcoal and kerosene as common fuels for heating, lighting, and cooking.

The long-term aim of the AIR Network is developing innovative, participatory solutions to air pollution and its effects on human health in low-resource settings in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The co-created nature of our work will ensure that outcomes will be communicated effectively to residents of informal settlements in Nairobi. In addition, policy-briefings will raise the profile of air pollution in informal settlements with Kenyan and UK policy-makers. Lastly, the “toolkit” of interdisciplinary methods and approaches that are developed and tested by the AIR Network in Kenya can be adapted for other low-resource contexts in SSA (and beyond).


  • York University/SEI YorkSEI Stockholm
  • SEI Africa
  • Muungano wa Wanavijiji (SDI-Kenya)
  • IIED
  • Kenyatta University
  • University of Stirling
  • University of Portsmouth
  • St Mary’s University
  • University of Glasgow
  • Institute of Occupational Medicine
  • University of Loughborough
  • University of Coventry
  • University of Durham
  • University of Manchester

PROJECT PERIOD: October 2017 to March 2019

Project Funders

  • The Medical Research Council is a publicly-funded organisation dedicated to improving human health. We support research across the entire spectrum of medical sciences, in universities and hospitals, in our own units, centres and institutes in...


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