Tackling urban health challenges in a changing world

Urban health is a multidimensional topic related to air, environment, climate change, prevention, preparedness and response to pandemics, housing, sanitation, the use and control of drugs and many other issues. As the main UN agency dealing with urban sustainable development, UN-Habitat, together with WHO, UNECE, the Drug Policy Commission, selected municipalities and governments, as well as the Geneva Cities Hub, co-organized a Special Session dedicated to promoting a holistic approach to urban health during the World Urban Forum held in Katowice (26-30 June 2022).

The objectives of the session were to:

  • discuss the major health challenges facing local and regional governments (LRGs)
  • understand the links between social determinants of health, environmental exposures, behaviour, health outcomes and urban policies
  • explore the impact of city design and governance on urban health
  • discuss ways forward for the effective promotion of urban health in design, planning and governance.

The session addressed the multisectoral nature of urban health and the challenges raised by incompatible and inconsistent policies between various levels of governments which act as barriers to good urban health. The need for a holistic approach to urban health by all authorities was strongly emphasized. The session also presented a range of health challenges faced by city leaders and some of the new approaches to managing disease, including tracking, managing disease epidemics and prevention through improved urban design and people-oriented policies.

Re-thinking urban space is thus important to tackle health both in re-design of existing cities and towns, and for the many urban areas yet to be built. For instance, greening cities (such as the transformation from old industrial zones to green park areas) was a recurring theme demonstrating the importance of green cities on urban health and climate change mitigation. Further, speakers insisted on the importance of equity in access to basic services and public spaces, and their impact on health – both physical and mental. Healthy environments go hand-in-hand with good urban design, be it in the global south or the Northern hemisphere. Health should be a consideration in the designing phase of urban spaces and should consider walkability, greening, quality of water, mobility and road safety. Unfortunately, it is currently not prioritized enough.

Part of the discussion was dedicated to urban policies by national governments which need to systematically include local and regional governments in the discussions and funding opportunities. Several participants concluded the event by affirming that “local and regional governments are essential actors in urban health policies and UN agencies might well wish to develop and better structure their work with them”.

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