[This interview appeared in Civitas Barcino, a magazine created by Josep Oliver, B.A. in Journalism and International Relations]
Mark J. Nieuwenhuijsen is a research professor from the Netherlands who specialises in healthy urban living. At ISGlobal he directs the Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative and also heads the Air Pollution and Urban Environment programme. He is a world-renowned expert in environmental epidemiology, assessment of environmental exposures as well as their health risks/impacts. In 2018 he won the ISEE John Goldsmith Award for outstanding contributions in the field of Environmental Epidemiology. In 2018 and 2019, he was among the world’s top 1% most cited scientists.
What is a sustainable city to you?
A city that will still be there in 50 years, 100 years, 200 years. A city that faces the climate crisis but also social issues like liveability, health and housing.
Over 50% of the world —over 70% of Europe— lives in cities, so when we deal with health we are dealing with urban health.
What do you think are the main challenges facing urban health?
Cities nowadays are very car dominated and with that comes higher air pollution levels, noise levels, the heat island effect, a lack of green space and a lack of physical activity because people cannot just walk or cycle around. All of this increases the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, worsens mental health, has effects on the brain and the development of the foetus and increases premature mortality.
You led a study that established a correlation between a lack of green space and an increase in mortality.
We started looking 10 years ago at the benefits of green space on people’s health. We have found that people that live in greener areas have lower premature mortality than people that live in less green areas. We’ve also summarised studies from all over the world and we have seen that this relationship is clear. Recently we did a case study of cities in Europe where we saw that we could prevent 40,000 premature deaths each year by greening our cities.
We could prevent 40,000 premature deaths each year by greening our cities.
How did the city of Barcelona fare in that study?
One of the main issues with Barcelona is that it is a very compact city, which is also great. We have too much space for cars and not much green space. Although only one out of four trips is taken by car, cars take up a majority of the space so we get a lot of concrete and asphalt in the city. We should be looking at getting more parks like Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes but also taking away asphalt and putting more trees in the streets to increase green space in our everyday life. The thing is that in many old European cities there is very little space so you need to replace some of the infrastructure which you have dedicated to cars with greening to be able to get enough green space. In sprawling cities like Atlanta, there is a lot of green space but people have to travel very long distances to get from work to home so it is not ideal.
Do we need big parks to enjoy the benefits of nature?
No. Most of the benefits we can get even from having some trees in front of our home so that we can see some green. It would be nice to have big parks to walk around but most of the time there is no space for this. It’s better to have a small green space close to home than a big park further away that people need to travel to and don’t visit as often. I really like the 3-30-300 rule: any person should be able to see at least three trees from their window, a neighbourhood should be 30% green space and there should be a small park within 300 metres of the residence.
Photo: Phillip Jeria Reyes / @phillipfleur
How do we get people to understand the importance of urban sustainability?
We often think of sustainable cities as reducing our use of fossil fuel to fight the climate crisis but perhaps it is better to focus on their health benefits because this is much closer to people. If you talk to people about CO2 they say “What is CO2?”, but if you tell them that reducing air pollution will prevent their children from getting asthma they are more likely to make changes.
Any person should be able to see at least three trees from their window, a neighbourhood should be 30% green space and there should be a small park within 300 metres of the residence.
What is stopping that change?
People are afraid of change. Barcelona is very car-dominated, people are used to it and there is a lot of resistance to including new models like the Superilles. The same is true in many other cities, to be honest. We have had bad urban planning and economic models. At the moment the car is promoted because it is, supposedly, good for the economy but the models on which this is based are already outdated. Furthermore, it takes a lot of money to make the changes that we need. I think that it is extremely important to have political leaders, like Ada Colau and Janet Sanz, who have a vision of a better, greener city with fewer cars.
Do you think that, as the world continues to urbanise, we place enough importance on urban health?
Over 50% of the world —over 70% of Europe— lives in cities, so when we deal with health we are dealing with urban health. Cities are like magnets that attract people. There are really big benefits to living in cities, but we should reduce the health burden of our current urban practices. Not enough attention is being paid to the health impacts that arise as a result of the economic factors driving current city development.
Although only one out of four trips is taken by car, cars take up a majority of the space.
Are we on the right path?
In Europe there is a movement, yes, to make our cities better but I am not so sure that this is the case worldwide. Many cities in Asia or, in particular, in Africa are growing without any planning at all so they are turning into car dominated nightmares.
Should we be planning our cities with human rights in mind?
I think we have a right to clean air, to live without much noise, to be able to move freely. Many of these are human rights and I think we should be able to fulfil them.
Can ordinary people help?
Of course! It is the people who drive change! Ordinary people can have an enormous impact when they organise to raise issues in the streets; when they talk to their local politicians; when they use their vote.
What has the pandemic taught us about our cities?
That there is a real need for more public space to just walk outside, enjoy nature and relieve our stress. We saw that there was not enough space for people to walk or cycle outside because this space is taken up by cars, so many cities opened up cycling lanes and they are actually being used. If you build them -and make them safe- people come, which is important for health and addressing the climate crisis.
It is the people who drive change! Ordinary people can have an enormous impact when they organise to raise issues in the streets.
Cities are becoming more and more involved on the stage of International Relations, especially in regards to the climate crisis. Do you think that cities are starting to show more ambition than national governments in their climate goals?
National governments are often a bit paralysed because they have to deal with many different interests such as national interests, EU interests, etc. They are also more influenced by car and oil lobbies which are very powerful and influence decision making. Cities are much more flexible so we see more progress from cities in recent years than from national governments or EU administrations. In cities, local politicians are much closer to the people so you see more progress being made towards where the people actually want to be. Cities are becoming organised worldwide and city organisations such as Mayors for Climate or the C40 are becoming quite powerful.