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How urban policies can make city living healthier and safer

09 April 2010 -- With the majority of the world's population living in cities and towns, this podcast marking World Health Day addresses ways to build healthy and safe urban environments.

Transcript of the podcast

Tom Shakespeare: You're listening to the WHO podcast and my name is Tom Shakespeare. In this episode, we mark World Health Day 2010 by looking at how urban policies can contribute to making city living healthier and safer.

This year the theme for World Health Day is "Urban Health Matters". Since 2007, for the first time in human history, the majority of the world's population lives in cities and towns. This trend is here to stay. By 2050, seven out of 10 of us will be living in cities. Although urban environments offer economic, educational and cultural, opportunities, they also present risks for health. Dr Ala Alwan, WHO Assistant Director-General for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health, explains some of the problems facing municipal leaders today.

Dr Ala Alwan: Today half of the world's population lives in towns and cities. Although urbanization may contribute to good health, we know that living in cities poses health challenges like exposure to air pollution, increasing communicable disease like diarrhea or respiratory infections especially in over crowded areas and urban slums, higher risk factors like tobacco use and unhealthy diet and physical inactivity and also increased injuries due to violence and road traffic accidents.

Tom Shakespeare: The cities which are growing fastest are those with one to ten million residents, many of which are located in the developing world. One in three urban dwellers lives in slums. Worldwide, that's more than a billion people. Both local and national governments are grappling with the challenges of urbanization. In many cases, rapid population growth has outpaced the provision of essential infrastructure; those services that help make city life safe and healthy.

Babatunde Fashola is the Governor of Lagos, Nigeria, the 2nd most populous city in Africa.

Governor of Lagos: From country to country, the problems are the same. Transportation, health, housing, urbanization and the consequences, lifestyle, environmental issues, unemployment and employment. Of course it is a matter of degree from place to place. And therefore, Lagos is no exception because of the large and growing population that we have.

Tom Shakespeare: Municipal leaders create urban policies which help shape health outcomes. Governor Fashola explains some of the improvements achieved in Lagos, which is a huge metropolis sitting on the Atlantic Ocean and comprising of islands separated by rivers.

Governor of Lagos: You will feel the impact in some of what we have done with public transportation, for example the introduction of dedicated bus lanes. This has helped in no small way to improve traffic time and also the lifestyle of people and consequentially the health care. This is complemented also by what we have done so far with water service, franchising ferry operations, providing infrastructure for the ferries to run but leaving the operation of the ferries to private sector operators.

Tom Shakespeare: Public policy affects individual lives in complex and sometimes unexpected ways.

Governor of Lagos: Some of the members of the community speak to us about what their experiences are. One woman actually told us that that was the first time in about six or seven years that she’s been living in that neighborhood that she could actually wake up at 6 AM and make breakfast for her family. Because now she didn’t have to leave from home at 4 AM. That meant a lot of saving in time not only spent with the family, raising children, supporting her husband and her children before she went to work, but also in the amount of sleep she herself got and the amount of stress got reduced in her life. I think if you begin to replicate that number over the number of millions of people who are impacted, you can begin to really put into perspective what we have been able to do.

Tom Shakespeare: A continent away, Mr Sukhumbhand Paribatra is the Governor of Bangkok, which is both the capital and the largest urban area in Thailand. He has discovered the importance of exchanging ideas between urban policy makers.

Mr Sukhumbhand Paribatra: No single government agency, no local authority, no single local authority, can address the challenge by itself. We need networks of cooperation, we need to learn about each other’s best practices in order to cope with these problems better.

Tom Shakespeare: Mr Paribatra has big ideas for future development in Bangkok.

Governor of Bangkok: Because of the congested nature of Bangkok. It is very difficult to find spaces for green areas but we are working very hard on it and hopefully we can raise the amount of green areas per head of population to international standard to over four square meters of green area per person in four years time. So this is one of the very important part of our policy.

Another one is mass transit systems. Unfortunately, we don’t control the busses, we don’t control the underground, but we have a certain capacity to contribute to the development of the mass transit system. At the moment, every working day 60% of daily trips are by private vehicles and only 40% by public vehicles. We need to reverse the ratio.

Tom Shakespeare: As you can see on the WHO website, for World Health Day 2010 urban dwellers around in the world are:

  • enjoying streets free of traffic;
  • taking physical exercise;
  • eating healthy food; and
  • reducing their stress.

These actions help demonstrate that working together, civic authorities, NGOs and individuals can improve urban health.

That's all for this episode of the WHO podcast. Thanks for listening. If you would like more information about World Health Day 2010, please follow the links at the bottom of the transcript page. For the World Health Organization, this is Tom Shakespeare in Geneva.

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