If “Cities can save us,” then what are we waiting for?

Dec 28, 2017

London and Dhaka, Nairobi and São Paulo, and New York City and Mumbai—it is these mega-cities that often come to mind when we think of “urban health.” However, the truth is that most of the world’s urban populations live in mid-sized cities like Coimbra, Portugal, home to fewer than 500,000 people and the 14th International Conference on Urban Health (ICUH). Regardless of the specific urban context, rapid urbanization worldwide is expanding the boundaries and implications of urban health, this especially as we move towards an urban population of five billion people by 2030 according to the UN. In turn, conferences such as ICUH have sought to make sense of emerging urban health challenges by convening stakeholders such as public health researchers, politicians, doctors, urban planners, and academics to discuss global priorities. This year’s ICUH gathering emphasized urgency for transdisciplinary and multi-sectoral responses in pursuit of healthy, sustainable solutions for cities.

Since 2002, the International Society for Urban Health (ISUH), with support and leadership from the New York Academy of Medicine, has organized ICUH, its annual scientific meeting and the only nongovernmental global conference of its kind. In support of urban health efforts, ISUH brings leaders together to discuss critical questions such as: How might we provide health care for the urban poor? How can we address urban challenges associated with HIV/AIDS, stress, and substance abuse? How can we hone in on issues of special populations in cities to ensure health equity? Jo Ivey Boufford, (now former) President of the New York Academy of Medicine, spoke to the opportunity to address the underlying challenges posed by these questions head-on when she declared, “We have a unique opportunity with the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda aligning at the same time… our charge is to bring together the urbanist and the health professional.”

Since inception, ISUH has served as a lead global professional organization focusing exclusively on the broad determinants of urban health. The group’s approach is fundamentally interdisciplinary, community-based, and action-oriented, as demonstrated by Kenya’s African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) 2009 experience. During that year, Alex Ezeh, APHRC’s Executive Director, hosted the ICUH meeting in Nairobi during which he invited policymakers to directly engage with researchers and community members. He also facilitated a visit by conference participants to Nairobi slums to observe the pressing challenges to urban health in an urban slum context. Regarding the experience, Jo Ivey Boufford commented, “Yes, we are about evidence, but also evidence for action.”

ICUH’s approach has resonated with many as this year’s gathering drew over 640 delegates from 63 countries, 40% of which were from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). While participants represented a diverse range of disciplines and sectors, they remarked on the “easy conversations across disciplines,” a “good energy,” and a “sense of community and support to advance urban health.”

How Cities Could Save Us

How Cities Could Save Us

Dr. Lidia Morawska, Director of the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health in Australia, pointed to the article in Nature by William McDonough, “How cities could save us.” She urged researchers to take up the term “urbanome,” the genome of the city, and think about how “cities are designed, but they are also organisms” which require a systems approach to research on transportation, pollution, social networks, and links to human health outcomes. Indeed, each city has its own specific needs and challenges—but we also have much to learn from each other.

If we heed the call-to-action made at ICUH in 2017 and work together across sectors to design assessment tools and benchmarks to monitor our rapidly urbanizing environment, and to translate our research into policies, cities could indeed save us all. HEARD Partners look forward to seeing the global community’s response to the call at the next ICUH 2018 in Kampala, Uganda and 2019 in Xiangzhou, China.