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Otago researchers join new global Urban Health and Wellbeing Programme

Wellington campus

Tuesday 16 December 2014 1:59pm

Prof P Howden Chapman
Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman

New Zealand researchers are adding their expertise in housing and health to a newly launched global consortium of science and health organisations known as the Urban Health and Wellbeing Programme.

Recent Prime Minister’s Science Prize winner Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, who is the Director of the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities at the University of Otago, Wellington, has just returned from China, where she represented New Zealand at the launch of this major new 10-year interdisciplinary scientific collaboration.

The initiative aims to empower planners and policy-makers to achieve better health for billions of people living in fast-growing urban areas by considering the city as a complex system, with factors varying across different local and regional contexts.

Professor Howden-Chapmen says the programme is designed to link the science and policy communities in developing research that sets goals to improve the health and well-being of urban populations.

“I was asked to speak there because the multidisciplinary Resilient Urban Futures programme, which is led by Otago, is seen as an example of what can be achieved by integrating robust research and policy. People acknowledge that even though New Zealand is relatively small we have been doing some pioneering work in this area,” she says.

“It was a fascinating meeting because President Xi has designated urban health and wellbeing as one of the key planning goals of the Chinese Government. He and his advisors recognise that the kind of urban environment that we live in makes a huge difference to health and wellbeing, as well as economic prosperity. Chinese scientists regularly consult with the Government in this area, especially as reducing carbon emissions is now a policy priority.”

Leading the consortium of science and health organisations behind the new global Urban Health and Wellbeing Programme is the International Council for Science (ICSU), with co-sponsorship from the InterAcademy Medical Panel (IAMP) and the United Nations University (UNU). The secretariat is hosted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Urban Environment in Xiamen, China.

The launch comes amid warnings that urban health risks and illnesses are increasing in tandem with rapid urban growth worldwide, compounded by climate change, resource depletion and other major 21st century trends.

To address these challenges, programme investigators will apply a “systems approach” to understanding interrelationships between urban design, management and lifestyles and health and wellbeing.

It will help spur the development of cities where healthy choices are made easy, where urban decision-making does not lead to unintended negative consequences, and where sustainable design allows current and future generations to share equally in the great benefits of urban living.

Compared with rural residents, people in cities generally have better access to health care, employment and education opportunities, leading to higher incomes. People living in ‘compact access’ are also more likely to travel by walking, cycling or public transport. However, urbanites often confront one or more elevated health risks, from infectious diseases to the effects of pollution, vehicle accidents, and chronic non-communicable diseases such cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.

More information about the Urban Health and Wellbeing Programme can be found here:

Professor Howden-Chapman says this important new programme will enable us to learn from international collaborations about which policies, implemented together, are more effective in improving people’s health and well-being while lowering carbon emissions.

“Policy initiatives provide opportunities for natural experiments from which we can readily learn what works for improving health and what doesn’t.

“Housing is linked very directly to transport and carbon emissions - particularly in a city where houses are away out in greenfield sites, making it immediately more expensive for households to operate because they have higher travel costs, often involving private cars rather than public transport. Understanding these links between housing and transport, and transport, energy use and air quality are critical for making cities more resilient and healthy,” she says.

“All countries now have to pay particular attention to carbon emissions and how to reduce them. It is critical that in New Zealand we are also thinking about urban development in this light too.”

For more information, contact:

Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman
New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities
University of Otago, Wellington

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