Urbanization and Health: Lessons from Europe

Everywhere I look, global organizations are communicating the impact of urbanization on health. 2010 World Health Day launched a campaign, “1000 Cities, 1000 Lives”, encouraging cities to open up their streets for health activities. And the World Expo in Shanghai from May to October this year is centered on the theme “Better City, Better Life.”

If you look at the data, it makes sense. Only two percent of the world’s population lived in cities in the year 1800, according to the World Expo 2010. Yet, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs predicts that by 2030 six out of 10 people will be city dwellers, and seven out of 10 people will live in cities in 2050. Additionally, in the next five years there will be 60 cities with over 5 million inhabitants, according to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization.

What responsibilities do cities have in maintaining the health of their citizens? And what fundamental changes must be made in modern cities to ensure health among citizens?

Challenges vary by city, country and region, and there are many factors that contribute to the health, livability and sustainability of cities including public transportation, security, and basics such as access to clean water, fresh food, green spaces and health care.

In many ways, Europe is ahead of the game in terms of finding solutions to improve the quality of life for city residents. In a recent article in E Magazine, New Lessons from the Old World: The European Model for Falling in Love with Your Hometown, author Jay Walljasper argues that it’s not just the fact that European cities are so much older than other modern cities, but rather a distinct set of public policies and ways of thinking about urban life makes European cities more livable.

According to this article, Europeans are more likely to take action to preserve their cities by protecting neighborhoods, improving public transportation systems, adding bike lanes, creating green spaces and reducing pollution.

But, the US, for one, is starting to catch on. Here are a few urban living lessons the US has picked up from Europe over the past few years:

1)      Bike sharing programs. From Copenhagen to Milan, from London to Paris, over 40 cities across Europe have bike-sharing programs to encourage exercise, offer an alternative form of transportation and reduce the levels of pollution and traffic congestion that result from cars. The US has started to adopt similar initiatives with at least 10 programs across the country, although the European programs are still done on a much larger scale. In Europe, the largest bike sharing program is the Paris Velib program with 20,000 bikes in its network. Washington DC, the city where I live, is launching a new bike sharing program, Capital Bikeshare, the largest of its kind in the US with 1100 bikes around the city this month.

2)      Gathering places for pedestrians:  European cities tend also to have areas designated specifically for pedestrian-only use – whether for biking, walking or skating, in addition to  city parks and green spaces. The Strøget in Copenhagen is one of the best examples and the largest pedestrian shopping zone in Europe. The US has far fewer pedestrian zones, perhaps because US cities expanded with cars in mind, which required wider roads, ample parking and garages capable of warehousing hundreds of cars. (Many older European city streets are now too narrow for the modern car.) However, last year some streets around Times and Herald Squares in New York City, which are among the most congested  urban areas in the country , were converted to  pedestrian-only  use . While taxi drivers hate them these pedestrian oases with their café tables and generous seating became immediately popular with tourists and residents alike.  

3)      Improved public transportation for the elderly and disabled:  Europe has long been known for its highly efficient and effective public transportation system. A few years ago, Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, replaced the buses in London with new models that featured lower floors and three doors so they were accessible for wheelchairs, the elderly and parents with strollers. The buses ended up having a few drawbacks, but the intention of improving transportation for all citizens and increasing social inclusion was there. Last month, the US Department of Transportation announced grants that totaled $293 in urban bus and street car grants. Among the grant recipients is a program in Portland, Oregon to replace existing buses with hybrid buses that have lower floors for elderly use. These grants will not only improve accessibility and public transportation in cities but allow all citizens to utilize public transportation easily.

While there is much more the US can do to improve the urban health experience, European cities are showing us how some easy fixes can make a world of difference – whatever side of the world you’re on.