Issues Magazine

Urban Planning Essential for Public Health


World Health Organisation

The world is rapidly urbanising. Thirty years ago, 40 per cent of people were living in cities, but by 2050 this number will grow to 70 per cent. "In general, urban populations are better off than their rural counterparts. They tend to have greater access to social and health services and their life expectancy is longer. But cities can also concentrate threats to health such as inadequate sanitation and refuse collection, pollution, road traffic accidents, outbreaks of infectious diseases and also unhealthy lifestyles," says Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Many cities face a triple threat: infectious diseases thrive when people are crowded together; chronic non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cancers and heart disease are on the rise with unhealthy lifestyles including tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol; and urban health is often further burdened by road traffic accidents, injuries, violence and crime.

Five actions will significantly increase the chance people will be able to enjoy better urban living conditions: promote urban planning for healthy behaviours and safety; improve urban living conditions; ensure participatory governance; build inclusive cities that are accessible and age-friendly; and make cities resilient to disasters and emergencies.

Coordinated policies and actions are also needed to address the underlying conditions of major health issues in cities today. For instance, outdoor urban air pollution kills some 1.2 million people worldwide.

Road traffic injuries among children are of significant concern in urban areas. Globally, road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death among youth aged 15–24 years, and the second leading cause of death for those aged 10–14 years old.

In many cases, rapid population growth outpaces the municipal capacity to build essential infrastructure that make life in cities safe and healthy, leading to the proliferation of informal settlements. Urbanisation, both in the developed and particularly in the developing world, is accompanied by a concentration of poverty. Today, an estimated one in three urban dwellers, amounting to nearly one billion people, live in urban slums and informal settings, signalling the call for urgent action to address their needs.