[This article has been published in Spanish in El País- Seres Urbanos on the occasion of the World Health Day – April 7]
The science is clear: urban life is harmful to our health. How can we translate this public health emergency to the citizenship and to political decision making?
The scientific evidence is clear: current urban lifestyles can have a negative impact on our health
There are more than 135,000 scientific papers published on air pollution and health, according to PubMed, the largest data base of biomedical publications. The scientific evidence is clear: current urban lifestyles can have a negative impact on our health. But the simple fact of living in a city should not entail such risks, especially because they are perfectly preventable.
A double challenge lies ahead of us: making this information accessible to the public, i.e. those of us who are not scientists, and ultimately translating it into policy decisions.
With these challenges in mind, at ISGlobal we have developed the #CitiesWeWant, an interactive report that seeks to synthesize and adapt the scientific information on urban life and health for the general public. Scientists and us, communicators, have joined forces to explain in simple words, videos and graphics the five keys to building healthy and sustainable cities.
The #CitiesWeWant, is an interactive report that seeks to synthesize and adapt the scientific information on urban life and health for the general public
One of the key messages that we repeatedly heard from researchers during the process is that this is a global public health emergency that we can start tackling from today with available measures. In other words, the situation is critical but there are solutions at hand.
The cities that we want are cities designed for people: with good air quality, low noise levels, without heat islands; urban environments with more green spaces that favour healthy levels of physical activity.
These are 5 actions that cities can take to place health at the centre of urban planning:
1. Air Pollution > Reduce motorised traffic
In Barcelona, private vehicles occupy 65% to 70% of the city’s space
Cities built with cars in mind generate pollution and promote unhealthy lifestyles. In Barcelona, private vehicles occupy 65% to 70% of the city’s space.
The World Health Organisation proposes a series of city-wide solutions for recovering the public space for pedestrians and cyclists, and for reducing the levels of air pollution – a toxic air that we breathe in 98% of cities in low and middle income countries and in 56% of those in high income countries.
2. Noise > Reduce motorised traffic
Urban planning also plays a key role in decreasing noise levels
Urban planning also plays a key role in decreasing noise levels. Populations in the EU with more than 100,000 inhabitants must report noise pollution through noise maps and implement actions to reduce it in the most affected zones. In Barcelona, the noise map can be consulted here.
Common strategies to reduce noise levels include the use of sound-reducing pavement on the roads, limiting traffic volume, decreasing speed limits or promoting silent zones such as green spaces.
3. Physical activity > Increase active transport
The lack of physical activity is the fourth risk factor for global mortality
The lack of physical activity is the fourth risk factor for global mortality and may account for up to one in four cases of breast and colon cancers.
Active transport – walking or cycling – on a daily basis is the most practical and sustainable way to increase physical activity. A good public transport system promotes walking and reduces the use of private vehicles. In addition, green spaces are important for promoting safe physical activity.
These measures are resumed in a study, published in The Lancet, which analyses physical activity in 14 cities.
4. Temperature > Reduce infrastructures for cars and increase green spaces
Heat islands and high temperatures increase mortality
Temperatures in the cities tend to be higher, and at night can reach up to 10 degrees more than in the surroundings. This is known as the “heat island” effect.
Heat islands and high temperatures increase mortality, particularly that related to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
This is why urban planning needs to incorporate priority measures to prevent such increases in temperature. These include improving building insulation to reduce the need for air conditioning, changing urban materials so that they absorb less solar radiation, etc. Several mitigation plans exist, such as this guide from the US Environment Protection Agency.
5. Natural spaces > Increase urban access to nature
Nature must form part of the city
The city of the future must be green. Scientific studies associate green spaces – urban parks, gardens, tree-lined streets or forests- with numerous health benefits, such as stress reduction, longer lives, and improved general well-being and mental health.
Nature must form part of the city. Beyond scattered locations, natural spaces must form a network across the entire urban area and benefit all citizens.
With a better urban and transport planning, cities could prevent up to 20% of premature deaths every year. What are we waiting for to act?
The Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative at ISGlobal works closely with public and private stakeholders to incorporate all this scientific evidence into urban planning. There is not time to lose. With a better urban and transport planning,cities could prevent up to 20% of premature deathsevery year. What are we waiting for to act?
Read the digital report #CitiesWeWant