Healthy cities of the European Region adopt the Belfast Charter, ushering in a new phase of commitment

WHO/Brian Thompson Photography

18 site visits across the city of Belfast gave participants at the Healthy Cities Conference an opportunity to gain first-hand experience and insight into actual projects making Belfast a healthier, more sustainable city to live in.

The WHO European Healthy Cities Network officially adopted the Belfast Charter for Healthy Cities on 4 October 2018, at the conclusion of the 4-day International Healthy Cities Conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom. The Charter ushers in Phase VII of action for the Network, spanning 2019–2024. It builds on the political vision and framework established by the Copenhagen Consensus of Mayors, adopted earlier this year.

The Charter consists of a political statement strongly advocating for investing in cities and their human capital, and a commitment to work towards identified strategic goals. It also boldly defines new health roles for mayors and other public officials.

The Network commits to fostering health and well-being and reducing inequalities, and to leading by example locally, nationally and globally, starting with municipal administrations. Furthermore, in Phase VII cities and national networks commit to supporting the implementation of strategic WHO priorities, such as pursuing universal health coverage and the objectives of WHO’s 13th General Programme of Work.

Leading up to the adoption of the Belfast Charter, the Conference continued with a full programme of events.

Day 3 summary

Staying true to the principles of a healthy city, the day started with the opportunity for participants and delegates to join an early morning run or a brisk walking tour of Belfast. The day’s morning plenary session then focused on transformative approaches for environment and health.

Dr Janez Potočnik, Co-chair of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) International Resource Panel, gave a fascinating keynote speech. Calling for a new paradigm of the circular economy, he warned that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shift the expected path of urbanization in a more environmentally sustainable and socially just direction.

Trade-offs among various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are unavoidable, Dr Potočnik continued, because they are dependent on natural resources, but focusing on sustainable consumption and production is the best way to mitigate trade-offs and create more efficient synergies. A circular economy should be seen as part of the societal and cultural transformation needed to sustain humanity, with benefits for both the environment and health.

Mr Victor Everhardt, Deputy Mayor of Utrecht, delivered a second keynote speech, underscoring that creating a healthy city is a long-term commitment. He offered pioneering examples from his city, such as electrically powered boats that make deliveries throughout the city’s canal network, approaches to remove cars from public spaces, and initiatives to improve and expand bicycle paths and bicycle parking throughout the city.

The keynote speakers were then joined for a panel discussion by Ms Brigit Staatsen of the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (the Netherlands); Professor Jonathan Patz of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (United States of America); and Tom Andrews of Sustainable Food Cities (United Kingdom).

The panellists explored how we can encourage better connections to exchange experience, with a focus on addressing the environment and health, increasing active transport, reducing emissions and energy use, and ensuring healthy and sustainable diets. While we need to connect local policies to global policies and contexts to enhance cross-policy coherence, this should not stop local leaders and cities from taking action now.

Participants then had the rest of the morning to join one of 18 site visits across the city of Belfast to gain first-hand experience and insight into actual projects that are making Belfast a healthier, more sustainable city to live in.
The day closed with 2 blocks of parallel sessions – 16 in total – covering a broad range of topics from sustainable communities, to equity and inclusion, to environment and health. In the evening, a dinner for the delegation of mayors and politicians was hosted by the Lord Mayor of Belfast at the beautiful Malone House.

Day 4 summary

The final day of the Conference opened with a performance by the Harmony Choir, a project that brings together 10 school choirs from Belfast North. The morning plenary session focused on the theme of food and food systems, and their critical role in health, well-being, community resilience and tackling inequalities.

Mr Geoff Tansey, curator of the Food Systems Academy (United Kingdom), emphasized how food systems should deliver safe, sustainable and sufficient diets for all. He explained that the marketing of unhealthy foods is harming our health and well-being, and noted that the 4 main threats to the world (and food systems) are climate destabilization, increasing inequality, competition over resources and global militarization.

Coming together across cultures and borders to build happier and healthy cities can help counter these trends. Mr Tansey encouraged city leaders to look beyond technical innovation to social, economic, institutional and legal innovation to find ways to create sustainable and equitable food systems.

The afternoon saw more parallel sessions as well as a meeting of universities. The group explored the development of an open partnership of universities that would cooperate with the Network and provide scientific and practical support.

The final plenary and business session of the Conference took place in the afternoon, when the Belfast Charter was officially adopted. The election of representatives of cities and national healthy cities networks to the advisory committee for the next phase was also announced.

Professor Selma Sogoric, Coordinator of the Croatian National Healthy Cities Network, received an award for the poster she developed with colleagues for the Conference – one of dozens of posters that were on display throughout the week. Creative notes – visual representations from throughout the Conference – were also presented in this final session.

Dr Franklin Apfel, Managing Director of World Health Communication Associates, moderated a discussion looking to the future with the former and current WHO regional focal points for the Network, Dr Agis Tsouros and Ms Monika Kosinska, respectively.

They provided insight into what Phase VII holds for the Network. Ms Kosinska noted that the conditions for the Network are ideal as the world focuses on achieving the SDGs. “The word is spreading,” she said in closing remarks. “The work of the cities of the Network is turning heads around the world. The time for Healthy Cities is now.”

The Conference concluded with a farewell from Ms Suzanne Wylie, Chief Executive of the Belfast City Council, and a performance by the Belfast Here 4 U Choir. Delegates joined the Choir in a song commissioned for the event, sung to the tune of Ode to Joy. The next International Healthy Cities Conference will take place in 2024, at the conclusion of Phase VII.