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Well-planned cities improve people’s health

Students talking in front of the Clocktower

Friday 1 June 2012 3:56pm

Philippa Howden-ChapmanProfessor Philippa Howden-Chapman

New Zealand is one of the countries critically examined in a major report on the planning of cities and their impact on population health, released this week. The report ‘Shaping Cities for Health’ was commissioned by a leading UK medical journal The Lancet.

One of the authors, Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman from the University of Otago, Wellington and director of the Centre for Sustainable Cities, says the report clearly shows how well planned and rationally developed cities generate significant savings for health systems, and healthier and happier citizens.

This comprehensive report highlights that policies to improve the health of people living in urban environments need to be based on an understanding of how cities ‘work’ as complex interactive systems.

“One policy, developed in isolation, can have a range of unintended negative consequences for the health of citizens over time, if wider long-term connections are not considered,” Professor Howden-Chapman says.

“Thriving cities that have an agreed vision across both public and private sectors transform people’s well-being and health in a relatively short time, whilst chaotic and badly planned cities are disastrous for health.”

Professor Howden-Chapman says one of the major conclusions of the ‘Shaping Cities for Health’ report is that the supply, design and planning of sustainable housing is absolutely fundamental for the health of the population, and to allow cities to adapt to climate change.

International research shows that houses built in close proximity to excellent and affordable public transport make it easier, cheaper and healthier for people to travel to work and schools, and access urban amenities such as sports arenas, galleries and theatres. However many cities fail to achieve even this basic requirement.

“New Zealand is noted in this influential report as a country in which those on low incomes are finding it difficult to afford home heating, despite the availability of renewable energy such as hydro and wind.”

“It says that many low-income households still use inefficient and unhealthy unflued gas heaters and open fires, while many families, especially in rental housing, cannot afford to heat their houses properly at all and exist in fuel poverty.”

This country is also singled out as an exception in the OECD in the relatively high levels and patterns of disease, especially amongst children. Despite being categorised as an advanced economy, the report says New Zealand is burdened with the dual human and financial cost of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, as well as a high rate of infectious diseases.

Professor Howden-Chapman says: “this regrettable record is partly explained by an under-supply of warm, affordable housing, in, or close to, the city.”

The report emphasises that affordable and warm housing needs to be seen as part of the essential infrastructure of society, carefully planned and developed, like energy, water, transport and sewerage infrastructure.

The report also encourages the planning of urban vegetable gardens as part of making cities sustainable, with many inspiring examples of how countries can encourage good practice in this area.

A copy of the full report is available from Professor Howden-Chapman.

For further information, contact

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

Sustainable Cities website
Healthy Homes website

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

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