INSIGHTSExplore the latest insights from practitioners and scholars in the urban resilience field.
Urban Health the new core skill for urban planners
The impact of COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our habitat and urbanism model. Five decades of investing in the entrepreneurship of cities to make them more attractive on the global market have left behind the essentials of any habitat: protect and take care of its inhabitants. The planning of habitats that put wellbeing and health at the centre requires urban planning that incorporates environmental and social plans. Such holistic urban planning requires new professionals with a cross-disciplinary background.
The economic crisis at the beginning of the century prioritised economic response in European cities. The urgent was to create or strengthen urban infrastructures to allow the flow of trade, even if this meant weakening the welfare state and increasing social inequalities. Furthermore, we have generally dedicated many more resources to regaining the business competitiveness of the city, than the recovery of the social network and liveability parameters.
The turn of the century also imposed a change of motto, moving from the Brundtland report’s “Sustainable Development” to “Resilience”. A term used by the United Nations in 2005 at the Hyogo Risk Reduction Conference and defined by UN-Habitat as “the measurable ability of any urban system, with its inhabitants, to maintain continuity through all shocks and stresses, while positively adapting and transforming toward sustainability.” As a result, the aim was embodied in SDG 11 “Making Cities and Human Settlements Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable”.
As with the term “sustainable development”, the “resilience of cities” has ended up taking a sectoral approach, aimed only at the capacity to survive and adapt to adverse weather events or specific disasters, i.e., focused on risk management and civil protection. This approach to urban resilience serves us for low-intensity disasters.
Despite causing almost twice as many deaths as the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, environmental pollution did not make as many headlines. Moreover, this is not an isolated incident; it has been going on for more than ten years. Imagine a whole decade with four Bosnian wars a year. Are we asking cities to be resilient to a shock or to know how to adapt to a more fluctuating reality and less static and predictable scenarios? The European Commission has already begun to introduce the idea of the “resilient community”, one that is cohesive, inclusive and with few inequalities, and therefore able to adapt better to possible shocks and disruptive events. Now let me rephrase the old, but not worn-out, environmental statement, “if we want a resilient city, we need a healthy community”!
Based on the WHO definition for Health; a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, a health care system alone is not enough to achieve healthy communities, we need a better environment. And urban planning can no longer ignore the impact it has on the health of citizens. It determines the urban environment which affects our lifestyle positively or negatively.
The cities where we live, the way we move and the air we breathe are the 50% of the so-called health determinants –the most important elements that have an impact on our Health–, whereas only the 11% of these determinants are related to our health care system. Urban environments often encourage sedentary lifestyles, which contribute to major health problems such as obesity and cardiovascular diseases. These environments can also promote dependence on vehicles, which are often fossil-fuelled, causing negative environmental impacts such as air and noise pollution. They can also be less obvious consequences, such as the influence of urban transport on the isolation of individuals and lack of social cohesion.
Some examples illustrate this issue. In 2014, more than half of the European population suffered from obesity or were overweight. In 2018, air pollution caused 4.4 million deaths and more than 80% of the urban population breathes air containing more PM2.5 particles than recommended by the WHO. Worldwide, noise pollution increased by 17 per cent the chance of cardiovascular illnesses, leading to 10,000 premature deaths every year.
In high- and middle-income countries, urban planning, infection control and immunisation have minimised death attributed to infectious diseases such as smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis and cholera which were the main causes of urban deaths in the XIX century. Nowadays, non-communicable diseases (NCD) labelled lifestyle diseases or Urban Health Penalty are the most common causes of death. Namely, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, respiratory diseases, neuro-mental illness, digestive illness and certain types of cancers. These urban penalties are particularly severe in people who struggle with social inequalities.
20% of deaths from natural causes could be delayed every year by meeting the recommendations of the WHO regarding minimum daily physical activity, exposure to air pollution, noise and heat, and access and proximity to green spaces. On the same topic, the Joint Research Centre -the Commission’s science and knowledge service- identified urban health as one of the challenges for the Century and calls for urban planning to become a tool that improves health and well-being.
We have been facing a growing dilemma. Our urbanism was created, above all, to prevent the emergence and spread of communicable infectious diseases which had decimated the European population in the nineteenth century, such as cholera, typhus and dysentery, among others. The model worked initially and allowed exponential growth of population and cities, yet it has not been adapted to the 21st Century. Urbanism did not adapt well to the invasion of the private vehicle nor to climate change. And now the coronavirus has exposed the weaknesses of the urbanism model, increasing the lack of liveability of cities.
We need to put people at the centre of urban policies. Cities are our habitat and should provide us with the basis for a full and healthy life. The COVID-19 lockdowns have made us aware of the value of proximity and the importance of the neighbourhood scale. The crisis is forcing us to rethink many aspects of our current way of life. Well-being no longer depends on the vehicle reaching our dining room or the number of shopping centres within reach. The new well-being means living in a city that enables us to have a healthier lifestyle with an unpolluted environment that offers everything we need for daily life, green facilities and jobs within a 15-minute radius of home.
A vigorous 30-minute walk in a natural environment, five days a week, can reduce the risks of heart attack and strokes by 20-30 %, of diabetes by 30-40%, of hip fractures by 36-68%, of bowel cancer by 30 %, and of breast cancer by 20. Each Tree we plant breaks down 6 Kl of CO2 – and extra 10 kg of CO2 from power plants in summer- and retain 20 Kg of dust per year. A blue space acts as an air cooler with an action range of more than one kilometre. Do our city planners and urban managers know this? Has anyone taught them? Are they aware that the location of junk food establishments increases or decreases their consumption?
To make the city we advocate a reality, new professional profiles and new technical skills are needed to know how to work with concepts such as ecology, health, social and territorial cohesion and gender. Subjects that for generations have not been central to the studies of urban planning professionals. Encouragingly, these topics are now incorporated into specialisation courses such as the postgraduate programme on “Urban planning and Health” by the Polytechnic University of Catalonia-University of Vic (UPC-UVIC).
It seems that some short-term impacts are going to be temporary or even permanent and will need medium and long-term planning to face them. This calls for a drastic transformation of the teams that plan our cities. We must walk away from the traditional silo-ed teams and opt for multidisciplinary teams that incorporate health professionals, urban anthropologists, big data managers, among others.
We cannot longer plan the city of the 21st century with a ruler & bevel. The planning of future cities must manage an ever-growing complexity and bring the pursuit of the common good and, the health and well-being of people back to the centred of urbanism.
Main image: © UN-Habitat Nepal
Architects and coordinators of the Urban planning and Health postgraduate course by UPC- UVIC
Building Resilient Cities–Not Tomorrow, But Now
It’s not easy. Globally, humanity is enduring one of the most difficult moments in decades. The experience is particularly bewildering for younger generations, who have never encountered challenge of this magnitude before.
We are all forced to take this pandemic seriously to stop the spread of the virus. The necessary measures to accomplish this imperative–from curfews and quarantines, to lockdowns that are unprecedented in scope and duration–will have immense consequences. The damage to global, national and local economies is readily apparent. There are also other less tangible consequences, including the psychological impact of giving up our freedom of movement and the fear that potentially authoritarian governments could use the crisis as an opportunity to increase control.
It is also frightening to witness how easily systems and even communities seem to be “deconstructed” in front of our eyes. While the sky, seas, rivers are clearer, and wildlife, relishing the lack of noise, vehicles, contamination and human presence, is venturing out into spaces that were dangerous just weeks before; the financial markets, our human “empires”, are diminishing rapidly. Humanity should seize this opportunity for collective reflection.
Building resilient cities. Somewhat counterintuitively, what most people visualize when they think of a city is the infrastructure–the bridges, buildings, streets–the “lights” of the city as some economist used to say. This conception is counterintuitive because all of these structures were preceded and created by people, for people. Like our infrastructure, efforts to build more resilient cities must also be by people, for people.
For this reason, the city resilience approach that UN-Habitat has developed is based on the social aspects and governance capacity (or lack of) in cities. The objective of diagnosing urban systems’ capacities is meaningless if the exercise doesn’t go hand in hand with an effort to understand humanity, in this case the inhabitants of the city. The ultimate objective is to improve the living conditions of the population while maximizing resources and preserving natural resources. A healthy city provides the best quality of life for the most people.
The world’s population grew from two billion to over seven and a half billion over the course of the last half century. The physical space of the globe did not expand. Now, the same space that only fifty years ago supported two billion people must somehow accommodate triple that amount. More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. This means that some four billion people are living together in cities. If current trends continue–and there is no solid reason to believe they will not–by the close of the current century there will be more than eleven billion humans on earth.
I’ve been asked many times recently about the value of compact cities in light of the current pandemic. Without doubt measures such as self-isolation, staying indoors and practicing social distancing are more difficult in a very compact city setting. However, compact cities do provide benefits even in a crisis such as this, for example access to basic services and medical care. Compact cities are also, regardless of any one individual’s feelings about the matter, the cities of the future given the world’s exponential population growth. Given this reality, we must act now to plan better, more sustainable and resilient cities.
Urban planning is a technical and political tool and process that, when done well, is the best way to reduce risk. The idea is simple: we must ensure that, while developing the cities of the present, we consider the cities of the future and the potential shocks and stresses the future may bring, such as the one that we are living through now.
The compact city concept promotes relatively high residential density with mixed land uses. It is based on efficient mobility and has an urban layout that encourages walking and cycling, the maximization of energy consumption and reduced negative environmental impact. The benefits of a well-planned compact city include shorter commute times, cleaner air, and reduced noise and the consumption of fossil fuels and energy.
Lessons hopefully learned. My hope is that the COVID-19 pandemic crisis awakens us to the fragility in which we all live. That fragility is not solely attributable to the direct effect of the illness; rather, the virus is revealing weaknesses in the systems we have built. We all live in the same world, everything is interconnected. Probably (hopefully) that is more evident in a city, where all urban systems depend and reinforce each other. As the COVID-19 crisis has made painfully clear, a pandemic impacts us all. North, South, East and West, we must come together to advocate, plan and build resilient cities, not tomorrow, but now.
Head of City Resilience Global Programme, United Nations Human Settlments Programme (UN-Habitat)
The Potentials and Gaps of City-Led Climate Adaptation
The last week of September was a pivotal one for the future of climate politics. While images of emotional speeches and worldwide strikes disseminated across the global media, politicians gathered at the United Nations in a series of events intended to draw the next steps towards the global development goals, among which the fight against climate change stands out.
UN Photo/Cia Pak: Climate Action Summit 2019
Research Assistant - Global Cities Programme at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB )
Resilience and Typhoons
The Batanes Islands (Philippines) are known as the most resilient in the Pacific. This remote and beautiful archipelago is surrounded by seas and frequented by typhoons. For its population, resilience is as ingrained in life as the wind and rain.
Smart Cities: Why One Size Does Not Fit All
13 May 2019
The Habitat III Conference’s New Urban Agenda provides for a “paradigm shift” for pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The new call for “safe, resilient, sustainable and inclusive cities” remains path highly dependent technology and corporate managerial solutions (e.g. smart cities), and institutional frameworks that often are not relevant to the particular city.
Resident Scholar; Womens Studies Research Center
Blue-Green Infrastructure for Climate Change Adaptation in Peru
May 2nd, 2019
Combining nature and semi-natural structures for urban water provision and risk reduction in the Peruvian basins.
Migration and Gender in Resilience Planning: are we doing enough?
26th November 2018
Today’s global socio-economic conjuncture is characterized by urban transformations, the growth of cities, mass human displacement, and deep social inequalities. This article suggests that urban planning is a crucial factor for navigating this articulation, for better or for worse.
Doctoral Fellow, United Nations University
The Crackdown on the Informal Poor – A Problem or a Solution?
25 September 2018
Forced evictions in Nigeria’s biggest cities are at an all-time high. Why and how did we get here? States like Lagos, Rivers, Edo, Kaduna and Kano have launched attacks on the urban poor through their policies. The majority of thus cruelty against the urban poor is unlawful and a violation of human rights. For example, the majority of cases in the Lagos state mobile court are centered around the “2003 illegal market and street trading ban”and the “wandering without a source of livelihood” law. This is not only illegal but a violation of the right to livelihood and economic participation, freedom and public space.
Policy Advocacy Officer
Seoul Spearheads Global Efforts to Promote Fair and Sustainable Urban Tourism
21 September 2018
“Tourist Go home”, “Tourist: your luxury trip, my daily misery”, “Your tourism kills my neighborhood”. Recently, this kind of message has been seen in several travel destinations, victims of their own success and attractiveness. Indeed, for many residents living in these popular destinations, tourism has often been experienced as a nightmare rather than a dream.
Senior Expert Sustainable & Smart Travel
New York, with 8.5 million people, heading for a sustainable future
July 17, 2018
New York has long been considered a pioneer – in fashion, art, music, and food, just to name a few. Now this city of 8.5 million is leading a shift in how we tackle today’s toughest global challenges like climate change, education, inequality, and poverty.
Executive Director of the UN-Habitat