Nature for health in cities

Opinion piece by Gareth Presch, CEO, World Health Innovation Summit

Climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity. The impacts are already harming health through air pollution, disease, extreme weather events, forced displacement, food insecurity and pressures on mental health. Every year, environmental factors take the lives of around 13 million people. Over 90% of people breathe unhealthy levels of air pollution, largely resulting from burning fossil fuels driving climate change. This is a major problem, especially in urban areas. In 2018, air pollution from fossil fuels caused $2.9 trillion in health and economic costs, about $8 billion a day.

Nature and Health Opportunities

The potential of urban green and blue spaces to generate better health and well-being is clear. Countries around the world are adopting Green Social Prescribing. Green social prescribing is the practice of supporting people to engage in nature-based interventions and activities to improve their mental and physical health. Green social prescribing includes both what is known as green and blue activities. These could include local walking schemes, community gardening projects, conservation volunteering, green gyms, open water swimming or arts and cultural activities which take place outdoors. These activities may be ‘prescribed’ by link workers (and other trusted professionals) alongside other forms of support, for example, referrals to support housing or finances – based on the needs and circumstances of each individual (Global Social Prescribing Alliance).

Image: Nature and Health at COP28

There are numerous known benefits associated with increased exposure to urban nature. This includes health and well-being benefits, such as:

Physical health

e.g. directly, through reduced air pollution and cooling effects, or indirectly, through increased opportunities for physical activity

Mental health and well-being

e.g. stress relief or reducing harms such as noise

Social, cultural and spiritual benefits

e.g. support of urban nature for social contact and cohesion

Education, heritage and creativity

Finland is leading the way with clean cities and towns based on the recent  2023 World Air Quality Report by IQAir. Indeed, the towns of Sodankylä, Utsjoki and Kuusamo in Finland came out as being the least polluted in the world compared with more than 7,800 different places world wide. The concentrations of small particles in the air were measured in 134 different countries and regions in 2023. According to the report, only seven countries fell below the air quality recommendations set by the World Health Organization (WHO) for the concentration of fine particles. According to the organization, the annual average value of small particles in the air should be less than 5 micrograms per cubic meter. In addition to Finland, Estonia, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, Mauritius and Grenada fell below the limit. In a comparison of over a hundred capital cities, Helsinki ranked in the top ten in terms of air quality, but even fewer fine particles were measured in the air of the capital cities of Estonia, Iceland, Australia and New Zealand, for example. The most polluted air was in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. The most polluted capital cities were Delhi in India and Dhaka in Bangladesh.

Ninety-nine percent of the world’s population breathes air that does not meet the limit values ​​set by the WHO and can be harmful to health and air pollution causes seven million premature deaths every year.

With 55% of the world’s population living in urban areas and an additional 52.5 billion urban residents expected in the next 30 years, and with 65% of SDG targets being relevant to cities, it’s no surprise the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities

A healthy, thriving natural environment is vital for creating resilient urban places. Cities were on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. The UN’s Report on COVID-19 in an Urban World (2020) noted that 90% of reported cases at that time were in urban areas. While urban density was found not in itself to be a decisive factor in the transmission of the virus,  inequality, inadequate housing, strained health systems, inadequate water and sanitation services and pollution made certain urban areas vulnerable. The pandemic calls for a renewed emphasis on a just and green urban transition, and a renewed focus on addressing inequalities in cities and by promoting nature in cities we can see benefits for citizens.

Image reference: Lancet Planetary

The climate crisis urgently calls to accelerate the shift towards renewable sources of energy. The way cities are planned and managed has a profound impact on energy demand which impacts our health and nature. Compact, well-planned and managed cities, with non-motorised mobility options, green public spaces and natural cooling/temperature regulation measures tend to have below national levels of energy consumption. These transitions will support our health and well-being.

Compact, well-planned and managed cities, with non-motorised mobility options, green public spaces and natural cooling/temperature regulation measures tend to have below national levels of energy consumption.

Financing Nature and Health

As health becomes far more important in determining investment we understand that when health is compromised so is our economic growth. At the Annual Investment  Global Conference 2023 (ref: AIM Report) in Abu Dhabi last year I ran a workshop for the World Association of Investment and Promotional Agencies highlighting the opportunities to invest wisely in health and wellbeing which would deliver long-term economic returns. This was followed up by the COP28 declaration “Healthy Planet, Healthy People” which calls on the health/public sector to support the SDGs with a 1% commitment from the sector’s pension funds (WHS – not for profit fund).  We’re now seeing these new models of healthcare that are focused on the environment and nature ultimately preventing disease while supporting economic growth (New WHIS ESG – Health, Climate Place Based Impact Model). As a result, new opportunities are emerging through partnership working – the establishment of Ecogreen Green Capital (African Focused – Great Green Wall of Africa Foundation) at COP28 and a new fund with the Commonwealth Pacific Climate Fund that will support the Commonwealth’s Small Island Development States for example. 

We must plan and manage our cities in a way that simultaneously accelerates the achievement of SDGs and responds to global megatrends.

Cities must be healthy, sustainable and future-ready with nature at the heart of our plans.

Image: COP28 Declaration & Ecogreen Capital Launched