Global mayors meet in Japan to address urban health problems

News release

KOBE, Japan, 15 November 2010—In an unprecedented demonstration of global collaboration, city and national leaders from around the world are coming together in Kobe, Japan, to develop policies to improve the health of city dwellers.

Urbanization is a major challenge for public health, with more than half of the world's population now living in urban areas, the WHO Global Forum on Urbanization and Health was told. With the number of urban residents growing by nearly 60 million people a year, urban planning to reflect broader policies incorporating health is now more vital than ever.

"Building on the opportunities presented by concentrated urban living, city leaders can have a dramatic and positive impact on the health of their societies," said WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. "Providing safe public transport, investing in public utilities, and reducing air pollution by banning smoking in public can lead to a marked improvement in urban public health."

Dr Shin Young-soo, the World Health Organization's Regional Director for the Western Pacific, told the gathering: "Urban living has improved the lives of many people. It has provided them with a good income, a better standard of living and access to public services, including health facilities. But unplanned, unregulated urbanization can lead to exactly the opposite – to unemployment, to poverty and to poorer health."

Poorly managed urbanization puts a strain on water supplies and sanitation systems, damages the environment and leaves populations vulnerable to man-made and natural disasters, Dr Shin said. "We have seen many examples of this in the Western Pacific Region. That includes my home city of Manila, which suffered catastrophic flooding last year."

By building on the opportunities presented by concentrated urban living, city leaders who improve transport links, invest in public utilities, and support better services for their populations can have a dramatic and positive impact on their health.

In Shanghai, China, for instance, vigorous efforts have been made to introduce smoke-free environments. In-door smoke-control legislation was passed on 1 March 2010, and the recent World Expo held there was largely smoke free, with smoking banned in all restaurants and a prohibition on tobacco sales and advertising.

Ministers and city leaders from over 90 countries around the world will be exchanging experiences to see how they can shape policy to enhance, rather than damage, the health of their populations.

There have been several recent and important commitments from leaders to improve urban living. In the Western Pacific, Health Ministers attending WHO's annual meeting in October agreed to expand the current Healthy Cities and Health Islands initiatives. In South East Asia, Ministers of Health signed the Bangkok Declaration on Urbanization and Health in September. And in the Americas, Health Ministers held a roundtable on 29 September to discuss the issues.

Dr Shin said he applauded these efforts, but the truth was that there was a limit to what the health sector could do alone.

"The power to change things lies with the people who are responsible for education, for transport, for housing, for sanitation and for designing urban environments that encourage us to exercise more," Dr Shin said.

For more information, please contact: Iain Simpson, Media Advisor, Telephone +81 80 3463 1644; Lori Sloate, Partnerships and Advocacy, WHO Centre for Health Development, Kobe
Telephone: +81 78 230 3131; Mobile: +81 80 2435 1864; Iku Tanaka, Media Relations, WHO Centre for Health Development, Kobe
Telephone: +81 78 230 3112; Mobile: +81 80 2435 1860; Paul Garwood, Communications Officer, WHO Headquarters
Telephone: +41 22 791 3462; Mobile: +41 79 475 5546;

Health Topic