Improvements In Urban Planning Key To Protecting Global Health

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Brett Smith for

With the World Health Organization projecting the global urban population to almost double to 6.3 million by 2050, better urban planning is essential to improve the health of Earth´s city dwellers.

In an attempt to address the potential health crisis that this booming population could cause, the University College of London and the Lancet Commission have issued a report recommending future policy initiatives that could lead to healthy urban development, and highlighting the case studies that are already taking strides toward that goal.

The coming population boom “will not only result in more megacities (cities of more than 10 million people), increasingly concentrated in Asia, but also in more medium-sized cities, especially in Africa,” the report said.

“UN estimates are that about 1 billion people, nearly a sixth of the global population, live in slum-like conditions. With the worldwide population predicted to expand to 9 billion by 2030, the number of people living in slum-like conditions could reach 2 billion.”

With these projections in mind, the report issued five recommendations for alleviating or avoiding health-related challenges for major cities.

First, city governments should forge an alliance among health officials, urban planners and “those able to deliver urban change for health in active dialogue.”

Stakeholders also need to address health inequalities among communities in urban areas, making community representatives involved and accountable. This could require local governments to support under-resourced and less organized sections of their urban population, the commission advised.

Lead author Professor Yvonne Rydin of the UCL Bartlett School of Planning singled out one important step policymakers could take to improve health outcomes for lower income city residents.

“There is a major need to retrofit older housing, particularly for those with lower incomes, to a) save them fuel bills and b) cut down on energy use and greenhouse gases,” Rydin responded in an email interview with RedOrbit.

“But we mustn´t do this in a way that compromises indoor air quality. Means of ventilation are essential. Well insulated houses also need to be effective in reducing heat gain in heat waves. And care needs to be taken on details to ensure that more insulation does not create the conditions for mould growth. The details are really important here.”

There is a perception that living in a city, especially in wealthy nations, gives a person an ‘urban advantage’ over their rural neighbors, the report said. Urban planners need to be mindful of the health advantages city living can convey and should maximize these benefits as best they can. The report recommended that city frameworks should explicitly incorporate urban health goals and policies aimed at the improvement of urban health.

The commission also recommended that city planners perform a complexity analysis to better understand the web of relationships that affect urban health. At the very least, policy makers “should be alert to the unintended consequences of their policies.”

Finally, the commission recommends using locally-scaled pilot projects that include active dialogue and continuous assessment.

The report also includes some case studies of public works and policy decisions that have had a positive impact on public health. In Mumbai, India, the Slum Sanitation Program (SSP) aims to provide access to one public toilet per 50 people living in slums or low income areas by 2025 through the construction of sanitation facilities. The report notes that some sanitation facilities have even become community centers, providing space for teaching and meeting.

While the program is backed by funding from the World Band and state government, nominal usage fees cover local maintenance, water, and electricity costs. These fees have allowed high standards of care to be maintained, but evidence exists that in some of the poorer settlements, only the relatively wealthier families are able to pay the fees. This forces the remaining population to resort to defecation in open areas.

In another case study in Bogota, Colombia, the decade-old Bus Rapid Transit system has decreased car usage, encouraging people to walk to transit stations and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The system has also had other civic benefits including reduced traffic congestion and greater average travel speeds.

Rydin noted another healthy aspect of Bogota´s public policy launched in 1974 that sees a huge return on investment and also increases physical activity and reduces emissions.

“In (Bogota) they close 97 km of roads on Sundays and holiday for public access. About 1 million people use this pedestrian space. It has been estimated that for each $1 spent on this, about $3-4 are saved in health costs. And that does not include the financial benefits of reduced air pollution and knock-on economic activity.”