By: Adriana Lein, MSc-GH and Gina Lovasi, PhD, MPH
Drexel Urban Health Collaborative and SALURBAL Project
Dornsife School of Public Health, Drexel University
October 31st marks World Cities Day, a global day of action and awareness designated by the United Nations General Assembly. Through affiliated events, programming and media, the day emphasizes emerging challenges and opportunities in light of global urbanization trends and calls for enhanced cooperation among countries and cities. This year’s theme, “Building Sustainable and Resilient Cities” is as timely as it is important to the future of our planet. Growing alarm over the vulnerability of urban areas to climate change and its associated spike in natural disasters, extreme weather and temperatures have brought an urgency to design and build sustainable and resilient cities to the forefront.
Since 2008, an average of 21.5 million people per year have been displaced by the consequences of climate change, including droughts, famines and extreme weather events. This year, deadly heat waves, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and typhoons shattered records and garnered global alarm. The human and environmental toll of climate change is amplified in low- and middle-income countries, whose infrastructure, preparedness and response systems are constrained by limited resources. Just earlier this month, a special report released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of the litany of dangerous climate-related threats to our livelihoods. Urbanization and climate change are deeply intertwined; cities account for 78% of global energy consumption and produce 70% of carbon dioxide emissions. At the same time, cities are home to an increasing share of the world’s population; nearly 70% of us are expected to live in cities by 2050.
Cities will both bear the brunt of climate change consequences as well as prove to be our greatest assets for innovation and action. Cities are the front line of building resilience. Through investments, policies, and planning in areas such as sustainable land use, energy systems, water management, and climate change mitigation and adaptation, cities can take concrete actions to mitigate and respond to sustainability threats in the short-term and thrive in the long-term. Emerging partnerships, such as the C40 Cities and 100 Resilient Cities networks are connecting city leaders to technical support and resources and providing a platform for dialogue and the exchange of best practices. Cities all over the world are taking important steps to cut carbon emissions, reduce waste, employ energy and climate adaptive infrastructure designs, and design green spaces. Building resilience is not just good for the environment. Resilient cities are healthier places to live.
At the Drexel Urban Health Collaborative, our core mission is to improve health in cities by increasing scientific knowledge and public awareness of urban health challenges and opportunities, and by identifying and promoting actions and policies that improve population health and reduce health inequities. Policies and actions in urban resilience lie at the intersection of human systems and the natural environment. Human activities affect our natural environments; but, the quality of our natural environments also directly impacts health and wellbeing in numerous ways. Green spaces, which can alter perceptions of and behaviors within public space, trap atmospheric carbon and offset extreme heat and flood, are linked to improved mental health and reduced risks of some chronic diseases and premature death. Urban agriculture with integrated water management and innovative methods can contribute to food security, nutrition, and disaster preparedness. Green buildings have the potential to lower risks for respiratory conditions, colds and flus, intervene against sedentary time in the workplace, enhance thermal comfort, and protect against harm from natural disasters.
As the need to build resilient cities becomes more pressing than ever, health can provide a useful lens for evaluating the effectiveness of infrastructure, services, policies, and interventions; those that are good for the environment are likely those that are good for the health and thriving of populations. This is where researchers and practitioners can play a vital role, identifying opportunities to partner with local governments and the private sector to examine the environmental and health impacts of these projects. Rigorous methods and data collection techniques are needed to construct the evidence base to learn what works- and what doesn’t- in urban areas around the world. In the face of increasing climate challenges, we cannot afford to ignore the co-benefits of health and sustainability that can bring us together within coalitions, which in turn strengthen the connections between evidence and action.
This post was written as a contribution to Cities, Sectors, and Health, run by SALURBAL. To contact the blog or learn more about the SALURBAL project email firstname.lastname@example.org.