Urban Health: the new core skill for urban planners



Year: 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed weaknesses in our urban development model. Over the last five decades, our focus on making cities appealing for the global market has overshadowed the core principles of creating safe and nurturing habitats for residents. To prioritise well-being and health, urban planning must incorporate environmental and social factors, necessitating a diverse skill set among professionals.

During the early 21st century, economic crises prompted European cities to prioritise economic responses, even if it meant weakening the social safety net and increasing inequalities. Resources were mainly directed toward enhancing economic competitiveness rather than improving livability.

The shift from “Sustainable Development” to “Resilience” by the United Nations in 2005 brought a new focus. However, resilience, as commonly understood, often centres on risk management and disaster response rather than adapting to an increasingly dynamic and unpredictable reality.

Environmental pollution, a significant threat in 2020, received less attention than the pandemic, despite being a persistent issue for over a decade. This underscores the need for cities to adapt to a more volatile and less predictable environment.

Creating resilient cities fundamentally depends on having healthy communities. The World Health Organization’s definition of health as complete physical, mental, and social well-being underscores the importance of the environment in nurturing healthy communities. Urban planning plays a pivotal role in shaping the urban environment, which can either positively or negatively impact residents’ lifestyles.

Urban environments can encourage unhealthy behaviours, like sedentary lifestyles and overreliance on fossil-fuel vehicles, leading to issues such as obesity and cardiovascular diseases. Furthermore, these environments can cause air and noise pollution, resulting in health problems and social isolation. For instance, obesity affected over half of the European population in 2014, and air pollution caused millions of deaths in 2018.

Urban planning has historically focused on infectious diseases but must adapt to address modern urban health challenges. This requires a shift toward people-centred urban policies that emphasise proximity, neighbourhood-scale planning, and well-being. Professionals with diverse skills, including ecology, health, social and territorial cohesion, and gender awareness, are necessary to reshape urban planning.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need for a transformation in urban planning teams. Multidisciplinary teams, including health professionals, urban anthropologists, and data managers, should replace traditional, specialised teams. Planning cities in the 21st century necessitates a more holistic approach that prioritises the common good and the well-being of residents.