Health and cities: A major new global science collaboration

World health, environmental, behavioural and social science experts have launched a major new interdisciplinary scientific collaboration. It aims to empower planners and policy-makers to achieve better health for billions of people living in fast-growing urban areas.

Leading the consortium of science and health organisations behind the new global Urban Health and Wellbeing Programme is the International Council for Science (ICSU), with co-sponsorship from the InterAcademy Medical Panel (IAMP) and the United Nations University (UNU). The secretariat is hosted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Urban Environment in Xiamen, China.

The launch comes amid warnings that urban health risks and illnesses are increasing in tandem with rapid urban growth worldwide, compounded by climate change, resource depletion and other major 21st century trends.

To address these challenges, programme investigators will apply a “systems approach” to understanding interrelationships between urban design, management and lifestyles and health and wellbeing.

It will help spur the development of cities where healthy choices are made easy, where urban decision-making does not lead to unintended negative consequences, and where sustainable design allows current and future generations to share equally in the great benefits of urban living.

“This important new programme will enable us to learn about which policies, implemented together, are more effective in improving people’s health and well-being while lowering carbon emissions” said Philippa Howden-Chapman, Director of New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities.

“Policy initiatives provide opportunities for natural experiments from which we can readily learn what works for improving health and what doesn’t. Policies which give priority to road building tend to support urban sprawl. Houses built on city fringes, where there is little public transport, evidently increase household transport costs and energy use and reduce opportunities for active journeys in which people can walk and cycle.”

ICSU-IAMP-UNU Urban Health and Wellbeing programme partners

Cities and health

Some 54% of all people in 2014 live in cities – up 4% in just five years. By 2050, two-thirds of all people will live in cities.

Compared with rural residents, people in cities generally have better access to health care, employment and education opportunities. However, urbanites often confront one or more elevated health risks:

  • Chronic, non-communicable diseases resulting from risk factors associated with urban living, such as physical inactivity, unhealthy diets, tobacco and other drug use. These include cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and Type 2 diabetes.
  • Infectious diseases that thrive when people are crowded together, or that emerge at the interface between expanding cities and surrounding areas.  Urbanisation is a factor in the global expansion of dengue, for example, and may have contributed to West Africa’s current Ebola outbreak. Increased global mobility between cities also facilitates the spread of pathogens like influenza.
  • Health effects of air, water and soil pollution from motor cars and industrial sources, including heart and lung diseases, cancers, developmental disorders and others.
  • Motor vehicle collisions, violence, crime and workplace accidents.
  • Health impacts of climate change including heat stress and risks from natural hazards, as well as broader societal impacts.
  • Increased risk of mental disorders, potentially arising from stress, social isolation and other factors.

Major health-related inequities are common in cities, including differences in life expectancy for people living in slum conditions, in access to health-care and vaccination coverage, and in the rate of work related accidents and injuries, among others.

Despite the significant challenges, there is reason to be hopeful. Around the world, decision-makers have identified a wealth of practical innovations and insights into how to improve urban health, ranging from innovative design of public spaces, transport and housing, through distribution of resources and services, to new models of governance, risk management and economic development.

The challenge is to scrutinise and elaborate on these ideas, integrating them into strategies that build toward a healthy urban ideal – tailored to local needs and respecting the limits of planetary systems.

Hence the rationale for this new programme, the novelty of which lies in its systems approach, says Professor Anthony Capon of United Nations University, calling it “a particularly effective way to understand and manage changing urban environments with profound implications for the way people live, work, learn, move and play, all of which have health implications.”


Piano stairs – the fun theory video

Finding a cure for our sick cities – Anthony Capon in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 August 2006

Health and wellbeing in the changing urban environment: complex challenges, scientific responses, and the way forward – Xuemei Bai, Indira Nath, Anthony Capon, Nordin Hasan, Dov Jaron, in Science Direct, 2012