Turning our cities from lifestyle slums to health laboratories

For an ageing society to function there needs to be a movement back to the cities – but cities need to be adapted and designed with this in mind

A hundred years ago, only two out of 10 people lived in urban areas. Today, more than half of us have chosen a life in the city. By 2050, the number will be seven out of 10. The pace of global urbanisation leaves little time for city planners and policy makers to reinvent the city. However, a reinvention is urgently needed.

Rapid urbanisation is a fast-growing threat to leading sustainable and healthy lives, fuelling bad diets, sedentary lifestyles, increasing stress and rising inequality of access to healthcare. Physical activity is made difficult by a variety of urban factors including low-walkability, high use of cars, and insufficient green spaces. All of which, taken together, contribute to the fact that more than two-thirds of the 380 million people with diabetes live in cities. And these numbers are growing rapidly.

Despite the current lifestyle problems, cities have long been an engine for development and innovation and possess the infrastructure to become sustainable health laboratories.

One clear opportunity lies with health and sustainability, which are two sides of the same coin. By acknowledging that the challenges are interconnected, the solutions will be too. Health is co-created and to build health into our city foundations, we have to support the work of doctors and nurses by empowering city planners, communities, educators, and businesses to take urgent action.

An important partner in promoting health is the private sector, which has the resources and expertise to contribute. The US estimates that the average person spends half their day at work, so the workplace is an obvious arena to encourage healthy living. Healthier employees also lead to a healthier bottom line with research pointing to a promising link between investment in employees’ health and a strong corporate performance.

However, workplaces need to think beyond the individual employee. Businesses extending health and sustainability initiatives beyond the company walls have the chance to be part of the New Frontier for Corporate Social Responsibility (pdf). Reflecting on this relatively new approach, advocacy organisation BSR argues that companies have yet to realise the full potential of extending health and sustainability initiatives across their entire value chains to include suppliers, local communities and the general public. But the potential is there.

Businesses are ripe with products, programmes and solutions that could be deployed in cities to unite sustainability and health and reverse the worsening trends we are seeing today. While many businesses have yet to fully embrace their role in co-creating healthy and sustainable cities, a number of programmes are already being implemented:

In France, bioenergy company Ennesys has developed a pipe technology that uses microalgae for the triple advantage of wastewater remediation, clean energy generation and thermal insulation for buildings.

Danish architect firm Henning Larsen Architects has developed a method for sustainable urban planning that systematically analyses and maps daylight in urban areas and buildings, as a strategy to revitalise neighbourhoods and reduce energy consumption.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia organise a garden market to benefit employees, and make it easy to bring fresh fruit and vegetables home to their families.

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