Improving health through smarter cities: Debut of a major new global science collaboration

December 08, 2014

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

Programme goals: Leading the consortium of science and health organizations 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.

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: 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 wellbeing are growing with rapid unplanned urbanization,"says 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 healthcare, 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-makershave 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:Comments:

"The fast rate of urbanization occurring in Africa and Asia draws special attention to problems faced by resource poor countries. The demographic advantage of youth in such countries would be lost unless combined with healthy living. Policy makers face the challenge of viewing healthy cities as 'systems' consisting of multiple subsystems along with the overarching super system of climate change."

Indira Nath, Chair of the Scientific Committee of ICSU interdisciplinary programme: "Health and Wellbeing in the Changing Urban Environment: a Systems Analysis Approach"


"This is an ambitious project being launched at the right time with the right partners Achieving the global goals for sustainable development and resilient growth will increasingly depend on decisions made within and about urban systems. While urbanization has contributed to overall declines in poverty and potential advantages for access to health care and education, there are increasing concerns about emerging challenges that may exacerbate current health disparities within cities. Therefore, a better understanding of the linkages, dynamics and complexities of urban environments is needed."

Jo Ivey Boufford, President, New York Academy of Medicine and Executive Committee Member, InterAcademy Medical Panel


"People make decisions every day in which they trade off their health for personal pleasure or convenience, be it when they consume fatty food or drive a car to work, for example. That means, living a perfectly healthy life is not the ultimate goal for many. For their own and the common good they are willing to sacrifice parts of their health. One of the questions we need to address in this programme is "how many health risks are people willing to take for the benefits that come with urban lives?" Citizens and policymakers need to be able to make that decision and become active agents of urban change. This programme will support them in making these decisions."

Franz Gatzweiler, Executive Director, International Programme Office, ICSU interdisciplinary programme: "Health and Wellbeing in the Changing Urban Environment, a Systems Analysis Approach"


"Human health in urban areas represents a growing concern worldwide but nowhere more so than in China, with recent WHO reports of millions of deaths worldwide each year from urban air pollution. Urgent action is needed to protect and promote health through improved urban planning and design. Every week the world's urban population is growing by more than 1 million people, with a projected need to accommodate an extra 2 to 3 billion people in cities, mostly in small and medium-sized cities in low- and middle-income countries in Asia and Africa."

Yong-Guan Zhu, Director-General, Institute of Urban Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences


"By anticipating problems and acting now as these new urban areas develop and the built environment is 'locked-in,' we will avoid the difficult, costly task in future of retrofitting cities to make them healthier places in which to live. One of the distinct features of this programme is its intent to involve those who are making the major decisions about cities in all aspects of the programme, from the inception of research activity to making sense of the results. A systems analysis approach is seen as especially valuable to achieving this goal."

Pierre Ritchie, Vice-Chair, Programme Scientific Committee and Director, Centre for Psychological Services and Research, University of Ottawa


"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."

Anthony Capon, Director, International Institute for Global Health, United Nations University


"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. 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."

Philippa Howden-Chapman, Director, New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities, University of Otago


Additional resources:

  • Productivity Losses Ignored in Economic Analysis of Climate Change

  • Quantification of heat-stress related mortality hazard, vulnerability and risk in Berlin, Germany

  • Extreme summer heat in Phoenix, Arizona under global climate change

  • Other papers

    Urban Climate and Heat Stress

  • Urban stress and mental health:

    LSE Cities

  • Urbanisation and infectious diseases in a globalised world

    The Lancet

  • Shaping cities for health: complexity and the planning of urban environments in the 21st century

    US National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health

  • Urban Form and Extreme Heat Events: Are Sprawling Cities More Vulnerable to Climate Change Than Compact Cities?

    US National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health

  • Health and wellbeing in the changing urban environment: complex challenges, scientific responses, and the way forward

    Science Direct

  • Finding a cure for our sick cities



    Urban health-related concerns are growing in step with urbanization. Some 54% of all people today live in cities - up 4% in just five years. By 2050, two-thirds of all people will live in cities, a reversal from 1950 when two-thirds of all people lived in rural areas.

    Percentage of people living in cities today:
    • North America: 81%

    • South and Central America: 80%

    • Europe: 73%

    • Asia: 48%

    • Africa: 40%
    According to the UN, the world's urban population in 2014 is 3.9 billion (more than five times the 1950 figure of 746 million), with expectations that it will surpass six billion by 2045.

    Today Asia is home to 53 per cent of the world's urbanites, followed by Europe with 14 per cent and Latin America and the Caribbean with 13 per cent.

    Much of the expected urban growth will take place in developing regions, particularly Africa, which will face many challenges meeting such needs as housing, infrastructure, transportation, energy and employment, as well as for basic services such as education and health care.

    Three countries -India, China and Nigeria-alone will account for 37 per cent of the projected growth of the world's urban population through 2050. By that time, India is projected to have 404 million more urban dwellers, China 292 million more, Nigeria 212 million more.

    Throughout Asia by 2050, 1.25 billion more inhabitants are expected to populate cities (the urban population rising to 60%).

    Although the proportion of people residing in slums has decreased since 1995, globally, absolute numbers continue to increase. An estimated 30 to 40% of urban residents in Asia live in slums. The percentage in Africa is over 50%.

    And non-communicable diseases (NCDs) today kill more than 36 million people each year, nearly 80% of them (29 million) in low- and middle-income countries.

    Cardiovascular diseases account for 17.3 million of 36 million NCD-related deaths annually, cancers 7.6 million, respiratory diseases 4.2 million, and diabetes 1.3 million.

    Lifestyle choices, such as tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol and unhealthy diets are common to all of the top four NCD conditions.


    ICSU-IAMP-UNU Urban Health and Wellbeing programme

    Experts meeting
    Dec. 9-10, 2014
    Hosted by the Institute of Urban Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences
    Xiamen, China


    Convene leading global researchers working in various disciplines related to urban health and wellbeing to define the strategic and thematic priorities and the medium- and long-term outcomes and activities of the programme

    Prepare a Xiamen Statement on Urban Health and Wellbeing

    Launch the international programme office (IPO) of the Urban Health and Wellbeing Programme at the Institute of Urban Environment in Xiamen, China



    International Council for Science:

    InterAcademy Medical Panel:

    Chinese Academy of Sciences, Institute for Urban Environment:

    United Nations University:

    United Nations University

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