By news editor, on 6 June 2012
By 2030, globally, three in five people will live in cities. Despite the perception that city living provides an ‘urban advantage’ over those who live in rural areas, those who live in poor urban areas can often have worse health outcomes than wealthier city residents, but also in comparison to rural dwellers.
Urban and economic growth will not automatically create an ‘urban advantage’ – public policy is needed to maintain and improve conditions to allow for such an advantage to exist.
This concept was the foundation for an event held by the UCL-Lancet Commission on 30 May to launch their high-profile report on Healthy Cities, published on the same day.
The report was the second from the UCL-Lancet Commission, recognising the valued commitment from both organisations to UCL’s Grand Challenges (Global Health, Sustainable Cities, Intercultural Interaction and Human Wellbeing).
The well-organised and insightful event began with introductions from Professor David Price (UCL Vice-Provost – Research) and Professor Richard Horton (Editor, the Lancet).
Professor Yvonne Rydin (UCL Bartlett School of Planning), lead author of the report, then embarked on a comprehensive overview of the report and its main findings.
Professor Rydin explained that the report aimed “to understand how better health outcomes can be delivered through interventions in urban environments in cities across the world”.
Certain components of a healthy city seem obvious: good water and sanitation infrastructures, clean air, uncontaminated land, safe homes, opportunities for safe and active mobility and effective green infrastructure.
Yet, in reality, these are not implemented. Professor Rydin commented that the problem is with delivery, and mentioned the Healthy Cities movement, which has suffered from a lack of action in the 30 years since its conception.
The reasons for this were alluded to, and a call for a new way of planning for urban health was issued. The importance of working with urban health stakeholders as well as involving and supporting local communities was recognised.
The Commission authors understand that cities are both complex and interactive, recognising that changes in one part of the system can affect others. The report includes case studies of city level interventions to illustrate important themes for healthy cities. Specific examples are from cities as diverse as London, Bogota, Mumbai and Toronto.
One theme that seemed to receive a lot of media attention related to the concept of urban heat islands – the disparity in temperature between city centres and the surrounding regions. Suggestions of wearing shorts to the office, taking siestas and installing swimming pools seemed to be popular in the press!
However, this was just one aspect of the comprehensive report: issues such as water and sanitation infrastructures, usage of household energy, urban agriculture and transport were also explored.
In particular, one of the encouraging case studies featured was an innovative transportation initiative in Bogota, Colombia, which bans cars in the city centre, one day a week, to encourage physical activity.
Another inspiring case study was the community-led sanitation infrastructure programmes being introduced in the slums of Mumbai, India. This example also stressed the importance of cultural context, emphasising the need for tailored solutions for each city.
Co-authors, Professor Paul Wilkinson (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) and Professor Nora Groce (UCL Leonard Cheshire Chair of Disability & Inclusive Development) both stressed the lack of a single solution due to contextual variations and levels of complexity. Despite this, there are common principles, which can be utilised globally.
Professor Groce went on to emphasise that solutions should be evidence-based, and that there needs to be collaboration between disciplines, additionally solutions will be changeable over time and will require constant vigilance and adaptability.
Phil Nedin and Professor Sir Andrew Haines were both given the opportunity to respond to the report, and both offered very complimentary appraisals.
Phil Nedin explained that he considered the true strength of the report to be in its holistic approach. This focus on the increasing need for interdisciplinary research in future resonated throughout the question and answer session, which followed the formal panel presentations.
Professor David Price mentioned in his introduction his belief that a “university should be greater than the sum of its parts”, and how the Grand Challenges are a major step in the right direction.
The existence of such an inspiring report and, indeed, the progressive research behind it, demonstrates the great strength of UCL’s Grand Challenges in addressing major societal issues of global relevance – and provides support for a focus on interdisciplinary research in the future.
Image: ‘Bucket-latrine’ public toilet in Old Fadama, Accra, Ghana (Credit: Julio Davila)
Watch videos of the full event and Q&A session below: