Experts Launch New Interdisciplinary Scientific Collaboration to Improve Urban Health

  • 2014•12•08     Xiamen

    Global experts in health, environment, behavioural and social science today launched a major new interdisciplinary scientific collaboration aiming to empower planners and policymakers to achieve better health for billions of people living in fast-growing urban areas.

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

    Among the programme’s goals are a focus on empowering planners and policymakers with better science to create healthy urban environments and improve well-being; identify and manage unintended health consequences of urban policy; and understand connections between cities and planetary change.

    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 well-being.

    The programme 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.

    Anthony Capon, Director of the UNU International Institute for Global Health, commented that, “Human futures are urban futures. As most people now live in cities, and urban environments are important determinants of health, urban decision-making will affect the future health of the majority of the world’s people. This new interdisciplinary science programme is particularly timely for the United Nations’ post-2015 development agenda because it will deliver critical new knowledge for healthy and sustainable urban policy and planning.”

    Elevated health risks in cities

    Compared with rural residents, people in cities generally have better access to health care, employment and education opportunities, leading to higher incomes. 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, all now at epidemic proportions worldwide.
    • Infectious diseases that thrive when people are crowded together, often in substandard living conditions, or that emerge at the interface between expanding cities and surrounding areas. Urbanization 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 rapid 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-among the biggest 21st century health risks, 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

    Moreover, 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.

    “Risks to human health and well-being are growing with rapid unplanned urbanization,” said ICSU President Professor Gordon McBean. “Infectious diseases spread more quickly and chronic diseases are fostered by more sedentary, unhealthy lifestyles. Rather than narrowly focusing on health care, effective solutions for these problems are more likely to be found by addressing and making adjustments to the urban environment. Coastal cities in particular are vulnerable to rising sea levels, storms and riverine flooding with higher impacts of people and the economies as the climate changes. Adaptive strategies are needed to reduce risks.”

    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 scrutinize 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.”

    The new programme will:

    • Provide a hub for interdisciplinary scientific knowledge development, exchange and communication and a clearing house for information on urban health and wellbeing, and for information on the activities of stakeholder communities
    • Support urban leaders and managers to make informed policy decisions by providing scientifically based information on the costs and benefits of healthy urban system structures and better urban health
    • Catalyze interdisciplinary exchange and new knowledge
    • Build capacity in science and other stakeholder communities to learn and apply system methods and
    • Inform the general public living in cities about healthy urban structures and ways to achieve and maintain better health


    For more information on the Urban Health and Wellbeing Programme or to arrange interviews with experts, contact:

    Mr. Terry Collins
    +1 416-878-8712