The urban determinants of health – i. e. upstream social, economic and environmental factors which have an impact on people’s health and well-being at every stage of their life – were the subject of an urban talk organized by the Geneva Cities Hub on 3 December 2020.
For that purpose, the Mayor of Reykjavik in Iceland/ Dagur B. Eggertsson, the deputy Mayor of Tirana in Albania/Anuela Ristani, the former deputy Mayor of Rennes in France/Charlotte Marchandise-Franquet, as well as representatives from UN Habitat/Graham Alabaster, and WHO/Ms. Monika Kosinska, were invited to discuss “Opportunities and challenges for urban health and well-being in a Covid environment”. The audience included representatives from States, cities, international organizations, NGOs, the private sector, academia as well as other experts. The objectives were to hear about measures taken by cities to address the Covid-19 pandemic and their impact on the urban determinants of health.
It was fascinating to hear how cities responded to the pandemic and how they focused on, inter alia:
the socio-economic inequalities revealed by the pandemic and therefore on the needs of those most vulnerable;
the spatial reorganization of the city, transport (opening streets to pedestrians, expanding bike lanes, pursuing efforts to implement the concept of the “15-minute city”) and changing behavior of urban dwellers in that regard;
the need to maintain or even restore trust with their communities thanks to regular communication. Mayor Eggertsson emphasized here “the importance of being honest about the pandemic situation and its uncertainties from day 1, as well relying on science and data for decision-making”;
community engagement: in particular, community relationships already in place before the pandemic were able to be used and repurposed to identify individuals with specific needs, enhance social resilience and ensure solidarity among the various groups of the population through health community services.
The measures above had positive impacts on the urban determinants of health, insofar as they allowed preventive health to be highly prioritized in cities. As stated by Charlotte Marchandise-Franquet, “health is a political choice”. Although the interlinkages between health and urban development have been acknowledged for many decades, the Covid pandemic acted a stark reminder that “cities should not be hostage to an efficiency-driven lifestyle for working adults only”, according to Ms. Anuela Ristani. Instead, cities should also be designed for the society at large, in a way that is healthy, livable, and pleasant for all. For that purpose, examples were provided about the “mix use” of new city areas in Tirana, where residential areas would be built next to commercial, business, and green areas, allowing urban dwellers to get access to everything they need at a short distance.
The WHO has been working on this issue for more than 30 years and has supported “Healthy Cities” networks in several regions. While the requirements to join those networks are quite significant for cities, their benefits were emphasized as allowing them to exchange and learn from each other, including on other priorities such as climate change. Further, during the pandemic, the European healthy cities network was able to mobilize its members and be repurposed to support the WHO emergency response. Thus, thanks to city diplomacy, mayors were able to call one each other and provide much needed mutual support during the emergency phase.
In conclusion, cities were put in the limelight during the Covid-19 crisis, because of their role as epicenters of the pandemic. However, while cities are vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases due to their size, high level of connectivity and overcrowding (rather than density, as recalled by UN Habitat and others), the urban talk demonstrated that cities were able to seize the opportunity of the crisis to actually address urban inequalities, showcase the effectiveness of multi-stakeholder approaches, as well as to make important political choices about the current and future health of their urban dwellers.
The Geneva Cities Hub will continue to facilitate those kinds of discussions in order to put the urban perspective higher up on the global agenda of various topics which stand at the heart of International Geneva.