Planning cities to boost physical activity

Anastasiia Shotskaya

A new publication from WHO/Europe is offering guiding principles for the WHO European Region to move towards increased physical activity in urban settings by transforming public spaces in ways that promote physically active lifestyles.

With more than 80% of the European population expected to live in urban areas by 2030, cities have a pivotal role to play in promoting and protecting health and well-being. Governments across the Region have recognized the need to prioritize physical activity, in particular in the context of cities. Answering the call of this strong political mandate, the new report explores options and strategies to boost physical activity in cities and advocates urban planning as a means to prevent physical inactivity.

Physical activity to minimize risk of chronic diseases

Physical inactivity accounts for an increasing proportion of deaths and disability across the Region. It is also associated with high health-care costs and lost productivity. Regular physical activity, on the other hand, is a safeguard against a range of chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers. It is also a key determinant of weight control.

World Diabetes Day on 14 November 2017 is a reminder that action is needed to raise awareness and improve the lives of people at risk for and living with diabetes. Increasing rates of physical activity across the Region is one of the priority measures to halt the rise in obesity and diabetes, and to achieve global targets on the prevention of premature mortality from noncommunicable diseases.

Countries in the Region adopted a physical activity strategy that highlights the importance of built environments in promoting physical activity as part of everyday life. The commitments in this strategy fully align with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs recognize that urbanization contributes to some of the world’s greatest development and environmental challenges, but that cities also represent an important arena for advancing healthy and sustainable development. Planning cities in a way that encourages increased physical activity will, therefore, contribute significantly to the Region’s achievement of the SDGs.

The new report, “Towards more physical activity in cities”, complements the vision and aims of the physical activity strategy. It discusses options for improving the “hardware” – the physical infrastructure and spaces in cities and towns – to transform the quality of public spaces and encourage more physical activity. WHO/Europe produced the report in collaboration with the Gehl Institute, a leader in research on public life and public space.

Examples, inspiration and guidance to help cities transform public spaces

The report offers an analysis of existing initiatives designed to boost physical activity in cities, aiming to move such initiatives forward. It also focuses on recent case studies of urban planning to promote physical activity. It specifically explores examples from parts of the Region that have been less studied, and aims to demonstrate how common principles and concepts in urban planning can be used to encourage greater levels of physical activity.

Through these case studies, the report seeks to provide inspiration and guidance on how different cities, in different contexts and at different stages of development, can use planning to encourage more physically active lifestyles for their residents.

Acknowledging that cities often have competing objectives, such as becoming more attractive to investors or addressing urban poverty, the paper seeks to explore how these motivators can be harnessed to produce win–win scenarios or co-benefits. In other words, it inspires urban planners in European cities to rethink their approaches, so that cities become more conducive to physical activity while simultaneously achieving other politically important objectives (and vice versa).

The cities that form the WHO European Healthy Cities Network have 30 years’ experience in working across sectors to make urban spaces conducive to active lifestyles, and can offer good examples of successful initiatives.

For local leaders who are working to improve the quality of life in urban environments across Europe, and for the residents of these cities, well-planned and walkable neighbourhoods, affordable housing and services, access to plenty of green and public space, and multimodal public transit options will make a significant contribution not only to reaching health goals, but also to creating more liveable and equitable urban development.