urban planning & infrastructures

Interview with Marta Rofin Serrà, Project Coordinator, Urbact Healthy Cities Network

Apr 15, 2021

Why collective health is largely determined by policies outside the health sector ? – “We have asked Marta Rofin Serrà from the URBACT Healthy Cities Network to share best practices and tips on how cities can increase their citizens’ health through urban planning and sport.”
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The URBACT Healthy Cities Network brings together nine partners facing different challenges and different policy needs to develop a common framework that will generate methodologies and approaches to improve health through urban planning.

The climate crisis, as well as unhealthy lifestyles in urban environments, are closely interlinked with urban planning

Studies show that approximately 75% of physical, mental and environmental health depends on the environment in which people live; that is, the combination of lifestyles, built environment, natural surroundings and social relationships.

Urban planning can provide multiple positive benefits for improved overall health. However, there are currently a lack of policies explicitly promoting health through urban planning, or from other policy domains outside the health sector. In addition, it is not well-understood how health is impacted by different sectors and projects. Quantifiable evidence of the benefits remains absent.

A “Healthy City” is one that supports and facilitates a quality life for all people from a physical, mental, social and environmental point of view

As defined in 1991 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) “a Healthy City is not one that has achieved a particular health status. Rather, a Healthy City is conscious of health and is striving to improve it. It continually creates and improves its physical and social environments and expands community resources that enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and developing to their maximum potential”.

Looking specifically at what cities can do in the field of sport and urban planning, cities need to ensure that they can offer their citizens the opportunity to incorporate an active lifestyle into their daily routine. This means that in their urban planning, cities should, for example, include bicycle paths, sufficiently wide sidewalks, and parks for running or physical exercise.

Did you know?
  • A brisk walk of 30 minutes a day reduces the risk of stroke by 20-30% and the risk of depression by 30%.
  • A “green” area within 500m from a home reduces depression by 30% and cardiovascular diseases by 16%, and leads to three times more physical activity.
  • Pollution causes 800,000 premature deaths in Europe every year.
  • More than 80% of the European population breathes air with PM2.5 particulate matter levels above what is recommended as safe.
  • Noise pollution also increases the likelihood of cardiovascular disease by 17%.

Direct and indirect urban determinants influence the success of cities in becoming healthier

A variety of urban determinants can influence the health of citizens:

  • Directly

– the amount and proximity of green and blue zones reduces the incidence of respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, obesity and depression. Mixed use, an environment with diverse uses, is associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, greater emotional well-being and more vitality. The walkability of a city is directly related to diabetes and obesity. The volume and type of traffic is related to both respiratory and cardiac diseases and, of course, to air quality and noise, which also have an impact on health.

  • Indirectly

– modifying the environment modifies the behaviour of people. Mixed neighbourhoods, with local services within walking distance, directly impact physical activity as well as eating habits. Green spaces have an impact on air quality. Aesthetic aspects such as street furniture, lighting or maintenance have an impact on physical activity.

The URBACT Healthy Cities Network aims to understand how urban environments affects and can improve health and how urban planning can be used as a tool or driver for change.  The fields of action that are investigated by the network are, among others: zoning, mobility, lifestyles and greening.

Three tips for cities to become healthier

Multi-stakeholder involvement

Successful design and implementation of integrated action plans rely heavily on the active involvement and engagement of stakeholders, citizens and multiple city departments in the decision-making process. Urban planning can be instrumental for this inclusive and open collaboration and communication.

Promote health in all policies

Health is, by nature, a cross-cutting issue that needs to be addressed through different types of policies. Promoting health in all policies as proposed by WHO, setting common goals and priorities, and developing a strategy or plan for health, equity and well-being in the city are essential to becoming a Healthy City.

Involve the health sector in the design of the urban environment

The integration of the health sector from the outset of the design of new urban areas is crucial to ensuring that all aspects of health are taken into account. While the health sector focuses on what is needed for people to be healthy and physically active, urban designers strive to provide solutions to the health issues raised. In this way, the city itself can become a tool for health, an ally for the medical prescription of walks, social relations or outdoor activities.

About the URBACT Healthy Cities Network

The URBACT Healthy Cities Network, launched in September 2019, aims to deepen the relationship between health and the urban environment, develop policies that focus on improving the health status of the population, and on collating and enriching approaches for health impact assessment of these policies.

The URBACT Healthy Cities Network is composed of nine members; including: The City of Vic (ES), the lead partner, The Municipality of Farkadona (EL), The City of Pärnu (EE), The Town of Falerna (IT), The City of Anyksciai (LT), The Municipality of Loulé (PT), The City of Alphen aan den Rijn (NL), The City of Bradford (UK) and The Planning Authority of Malta.

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The term “active design” combines all the actions taken by urban planning and architecture stakeholders to encourage or multiply opportunities to be physically active and provide easy access to a healthy diet.