BLOG: Systems thinking approaches in housing research
Category: Housing supply
Published: 15 Feb, 2024

When discussing the importance of housing quality, we often find ourselves referring to interior features of homes such as levels of condensation or mould. These features have been found to be important, particularly when predicting the mental health of individuals living in these homes (Sanders et al., 2023). In recent years, we have seen an increasing acknowledgement of the importance of neighbourhood quality when considering housing quality. For example, features of neighbourhood quality, including social cohesion and crime rates, also predict worse mental health (Visser et al., 2021).

External features of our physically built environments, including neighbourhood quality, are often referred to as ‘control variables’ in housing and health research. This, perhaps, was partly driven by the need for housing researchers to convince readers of the importance of housing quality. Furthermore, the importance of ‘disentangling’ variables in the scientific method also drives the need for distinction between housing and neighbourhood quality. However, now that we have seen numerous examples of evidence showing the importance of both housing and neighbourhood quality for mental health (Sanders et al., 2023; Jones-Round et al., 2013), I believe it is time for an active effort towards incorporating systems-thinking approaches (Arnold & Wade, 2015).

At its core, systems thinking acknowledges the complexity of relationships between things. Systems thinking may appear oppositional to the scientific method, as it favours focussing on wholes rather than parts. However, the two methods have distinct purposes. Systems-thinking approaches are needed to identify potential relationships that may not be visible at first glance. The scientific method is needed to verify whether the potential relationships we have identified are indeed real and supported by evidence.

When we take a systems-thinking approach, we start to unravel the complexity of housing quality. We can start to deconstruct the needs of housing beyond providing shelter. Housing also acts as a base from which people travel to and from. For example, individuals’ experiences of stressful journeys to and from their homes are a factor of housing quality that may be missed by not taking a systems-thinking approach and looking outward. Identifying these hidden relationships may provide nuance avenues for improving not just housing quality but also other factors of the physically built environment, such as transport infrastructure.

As the necessity to improve both population and planet health increases rapidly, the necessity of incorporating systems-thinking approaches into research will reach criticality. If we are expecting individuals to reduce their reliance on personal cars, then perhaps housing quality measures need to start including accessibility to public transport options. Similarly, if we are expecting individuals to reduce their reliance on fossil-fuel powered personal vehicles, then we also should consider including accessibility to electric charging infrastructure in measurements of housing quality.

The scientific method has been and will continue to be critical for understanding the importance of housing quality and the mechanisms through which it is associated with health and well-being. However, incorporating systems-thinking approaches could provide a new avenue of possibility for improving our understanding of how to both measure and improve housing quality.


Arnold, R. D., & Wade, J. P. (2015). A definition of systems thinking: A systems approach. Procedia computer science44, 669-678.

Jones-Rounds, M. L., Evans, G. W., & Braubach, M. (2013). The interactive effects of housing and neighbourhood quality on psychological well-being. J Epidemiol Community Health.

Sanders, F., Baltramonaityte, V., Lussier, A., Smith, D.A.C., Dunn, E.C., Walton. E. (2023). Home and epigenome: How DNA methylation could explain the association between housing quality and depression. Neuroscience Applied, Supplement 2,

Visser, K., Bolt, G., Finkenauer, C., Jonker, M., Weinberg, D., & Stevens, G. W. (2021). Neighbourhood deprivation effects on young people’s mental health and well-being: A systematic review of the literature. Social Science & Medicine270, 113542.

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