For the first time in history, more people live in cities and towns than in rural areas. In a parallel trend, the burden of world poverty is also shifting from sparsely populated rural areas to densely populated cities. By mid-century, urban dwellers will count for seven out of every ten people. Most of this explosive growth is occurring in developing countries. Rapid, unplanned urbanization is expanding slums and informal settlements and municipal authorities are struggling to cope.
The disparity in people’s income, opportunities, living conditions and access to services is most vividly reflected by the mirror of public health. The threats are numerous: inadequate sanitation and refuse collection; industrial and traffic pollution; infectious diseases that thrive on squalor and crowded conditions; high rates of tobacco use; physical inactivity; unhealthy diets; crime, violence and the use of harmful substances.
To a large extent these problems lie beyond the direct control of the health sector. Improving urban health therefore requires sound policies across all areas of government and awareness among all sectors of society. The broad family of UN agencies and programs is involved in this effort: working to reduce air and noise pollution, traffic congestion and crime; helping to improve housing, sanitation and food and water safety.
Although the threats to health in cities are many, there is also reason for optimism. The root causes of urban health problems are known. So, too, are the methods for dealing with them. On World Health Day 2010, more than 700 cities from around the world will share their success stories. Together, these policies, interventions and best practices show how we make cities healthy places to live.
Many problems can be solved through better planning and more effective use of standards and the legislation needed to enforce them. Actions need not be complex or costly. Interventions with a demonstrated impact range from using urban gardens and farms to promote nutrition education and physical activity to communities working together to reduce crime and violence. On this World Health Day, let us act to make our cities more nurturing for all. Urban health matters!
Ban Ki-moon is the Secretary-General of the United Nations. This article is published courtesy of the United Nations.