What is a ‘healthy city’? The answer lies in the paradigm of the beholder.

by Jinhee Kim

What is health? What is a city? And what is a ‘healthy city’…? Convinced that the essence of a healthy city is in the commitment to the values of health equity and empowerment and in the process to develop healthy public policies, my answer to that last question would at times end up being an enigma to the inquirer. I would sell abstract truisms. ‘That all sounds great, but what exactly is a healthy city?’, they would retort. I may have found a way to resolve this paradox, well, at least for myself.

Urban health is a field of research and practice in which a diverse range of actors from multiple disciplines, sectors and trades are involved. Different professions and sectors address urban health issues based on their conceptual, theoretical, methodological, instrumental and even historically determined positions.

Distinctively different groups would be likely to have different views on:

  • Which urban health issues are more important (a conceptual gaze);
  • What causes these urban health issues (theoretical frameworks);
  • Which data collection or analytical method would best measure and seek information (methodologies);
  • Which solutions effectively resolve the prioritised issues (instrumental dimensions).

Consequently, depending on how these dimensions are defined, the vision of a ‘healthy city’ and the preferred ways to get there would inevitably be different between groups.

In the field of urban planning and health, a popular sub-topic of urban health, there appear to be four dominant approaches, or paradigms, that I label as – the ‘medical-industrial city (MIC)’, the ‘urban health science (UHS), the ‘healthy built environments (HBE)’ and the ‘health social movements (HSM)’ paradigm. Each one of these is characteristically unique in the way the urban health problems or issues are defined, analysed and sought to be resolved.

The ‘medical-industrial city’ paradigm

The ‘medical-industrial city (MIC)’ paradigm is a position on urban health that is driven by the business and industry sector – e.g. healthcare, construction, technology, etc. Researchers, practitioners and policymakers supporting this world view believe that the investment in healthcare infrastructure and technology will bring urban economic growth. Such growth is their dominant preoccupation. Here, the concept of health is often coupled with the images of economic prosperity in the form of liveability and healthy lifestyles. For example, the nexus between urban planning and health in the Greater Sydney’s health and education precinct is similar to the views of this paradigm.

Health and education precincts
(The Greater Sydney Region Plan, A Metropolis of Three Cities, 2015)
The ‘urban health science (UHS)’ paradigm

The ‘urban health science (UHS)’ paradigm is characteristic in its strong emphasis on the application of epidemiological and classic Cartesian analytical methods in understanding the complex causal relationships between the urban environment and its health impacts. This gaze tends to emphasise concepts such as risk behaviour or odds ratios, and as a consequence may look exclusively behaviourist. The types of evidence are critical in informing and evaluating effective interventions and policies. Examples of this paradigm in practice are shown in projects such as the Australian Urban Health Indicators and in initiatives such as the Partnership for Healthy Cities supported by the Bloomberg Foundation. The data makes visible how healthy or liveable cities are, and are used to prescribe high impact and proven interventions that reduce unhealthy outcomes in cities.

Fourteen proven interventions to prevent noncommunicable diseases and injuries (The Partnership for Healthy Cities)
The ‘healthy built environment (HBE)’ paradigm

The ‘healthy built environment (HBE)’ paradigm proposes the (re-)integration of health into the objectives of spatial planning of cities. The healthy built environments view has an explicit focus on transforming the regulations and institutions that constitute the urban and spatial planning system and advocates for the adoption of health as a major integrative goal for urban planning and design. Often, activities following this paradigm produce a set of codes or guidelines to be used as a guide or benchmark in the review of development proposals. The NSW Ministry of Health Healthy Built Environment Checklist is an example that shares features of this position. Here, a clear set of recommendations are given to health professionals to influence planning decisions.

Healthy Built Environment Checklist (NSW Ministry of Health, 2020)

The ‘health social movement (HSM)’ paradigm

The ‘health social movement (HSM)’ paradigm seeks to integrate health considerations into all aspects of urban governance, with an emphasis on operationalising values such as health equity and empowerment. The WHO Healthy Cities movement is an example of city action and research in this paradigm, along with other examples of community-based participatory action. Here, values such as solidarity, equity, sustainability and empowerment guide the identification of urban health issues and the solutions are ideally driven by the empowered community, focusing both inward (in communal action) and outward (in seeking policy and systems change). 

Healthy Cities Vision (Copenhagen Consensus of Mayors, 2018)

What paradigm is mine?

The reality is, of course, that urban health researchers, practitioners and policymakers embrace different configurations and combinations of these four paradigms. The four paradigms are neither mutually exclusive nor always prominently portrayed in individual urban health research efforts or particular policies. It is also not expected for individual studies or researchers to be designated as a particular paradigm. Instead, the significance of clearly articulating the different paradigmatic approaches lies in supporting researchers, practitioners and policymakers to understand better the diversity and the complexity of urban health issues. More importantly, by acknowledging and understanding other viewpoints, policy actors will be able to identify areas for better transdisciplinary collaboration. Rather than simply disregarding a particular position, actively seeking reciprocally valuable starting points would allow for better engagement.

Perhaps in my previous attempts in responding to the question ‘what is a healthy city?’, I was imposing my paradigmatic position to those who might not be sharing the same view. I should now start by framing my answer as one way of defining a healthy city, and that other paradigms co-exist. Hopefully this will enable me to build more constructive collaborations.

Peak Urban : The glocal disconnect in the Anthropocene

Disruptions are not necessarily cataclysmic events located sharply in time. They reach tipping points. In 1956 M. King Hubbert theorised a phenomenon called ‘peak oil’ (1): the moment maximum extraction of crude oil was reached, and from that moment it would go down-hill with the world. ‘Peak oil’ would cast its doom on Planet Earth some time between 1960 and 2050 (with the majority of predictions somewhere next year).

The rise and fall of geo-extraction based internal combustion machines fuelling industrialisation is a (admittedly disruptive) blip on the glacial time scale of geological epochs. It is unsettling, therefore, that we humans are the first species in the existence of the planet to be aware of the fact that we are witnessing a shift in epochs – and are entering into one of our own making.

This is the Anthropocene – where humans have started to make a permanent impact, indelible and observable for the remaining existence of the solar system on the strata of sedimentation of Earth. The Anthropocene is the ultimate disruptor of the Earth’s systems. Geologists have debated where in time the starting point of this human caused sedimentation can be placed. The first detonation of thermo-nuclear devices in the 1940s has been proposed (leaving a thin layer of radioactive matter on the Earth’s crust), others are more ‘conservative’ and observe permanent residue of (micro)plastics in seabeds and mountain ranges as the first evidence of an Anthropocene.

I see human settlement as the phenomenon contributing most to the Anthropocene. After a slow start for about 10000 years urbanisation has picked up pace in the mid-1800s, and Earth has been famously declared an urban planet in an urban century by the United Nations soon after the turn of this millennium (2). More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and depending on the method of counting this may yet have reached 70%.

We have reached ‘Peak Urban’ – there is no way back. The urban environment is our future habitat and it is shaping peoples’ health potential and threats. It has suddenly become the permanent disruptor. Romantic notions of natural living surrounded by pristine environments and autarkic subsistence must now be relegated to the Holocene. The environments of our entire lives, whether we like it or not, will be constructed by human structure and human agency. No matter whether they are red (built), grey (institutions), green (natural/terrestrial) or blue (natural/aquatic) environments, our surrounds are anthropocenic and -genic.

It is therefore dramatic that we get these environments so often wrong. Wrong for human interaction and growth, wrong for health and wellbeing, wrong for social and ecological sustainability, wrong at virtually any level. If we create our own urban environment, why don’t we make better efforts at getting it all right?

At its simplest, cities have dual purpose: they concentrate things, and they move things. If one of these functions is not hitting the mark, the other will suffer. Cities thus entering into decay have a hard time emerging into health and prosperity again – let alone into sustainability. Scaled up to global connectivity and ‘peak urban’, some cities do have the value and governance systems to concentrate nimbly, whereas others find themselves isolated and on the fringe of viability – but regressing from city-hood is not an option; they simply decline into urban deserts or withdraw from the equitable provision of services, infrastructure and facilities, turning suburbia into Peak Slum and disconnected and mobility-challenged hotbeds of non-communicable disease, disability and unequal opportunity.

The growth of the local, of urbanity, has not kept pace with the global governance systems that have emerged over the last two centuries or so – those of nation-states declaring sovereignty (3). The Anthropocene created an insurmountable governance disconnect between what matters locally and what happens globally – and the other way around. City-dwellers and their representatives feel increasingly disconnected from the global discourse that drives the creation of health, sustainability and prosperity. They will be the have-nots of the Anthropocene. Millennials are filling this space in glocal connectedness through social media and the gig economy but may not contribute to traditional social and community development, leaving urban administrations that cannot keep pace with these new forms of concentration and mobility yet again left to their own – haphazard – devices. New inequities will emerge between the connected and the disconnected.

Is the glocal disconnect view of Peak Urban in this Anthropocene painting too much of a bleak picture? The future of the urban planet and this urban century surely must look better – especially for the health governance opportunities that are created by concentrations of technology and media?

Yes. There is light. Groups of communities and local governments have explicitly chosen to seek a governance role on the global podium. They have connected around values such as health (Healthy Cities), technology (Smart Cities) and other themes (Resilient Cities, Slow Cities, Age-Friendly Cities, Safe Cities). They have joined, facilitated by Habitat III in Quito, in globe-spanning networks like Sustainable Cities, United Cities and ICLEI, and have explicitly embraced multi-professionalism, the value of connected research and development, the power of committed communities and diversity, and open and transparent exchange of experience. Perhaps one of the most compelling characteristics of these glocal networks (4) is that, different from the second half of the 20th century, there is no distinction between the Global North and the Global South anymore. The urbanist Saskia Sassen (5) a few decades ago described a class of ‘Global Cities’ in which it makes no difference whether you are in Copenhagen, Seoul, Kinshasa, Sao Paolo or Chicago to navigate public transport or the food system – it appears that connected glocal cities of the 21st century, indeed of the Anthropocene, are all world cities.

Networked, distributed glocal urban (health) governance is the only way beyond Peak Urban.

Evelyne de Leeuw

1 Hubbert MK. Nuclear energy and the fossil fuel. In: Drilling and production practice. 1956 Jan 1. American Petroleum Institute.
2 McDonald RI. Global urbanization: can ecologists identify a sustainable way forward? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 2008 Mar;6(2):99-104.
3 de Leeuw, E., B. Townsend, E. Martin, C. M. Jones & C. Clavier Emerging theoretical frameworks for global health governance. Chapter 6 in: Clavier, C. & E. de Leeuw, eds. 2013 Health Promotion and the Policy Process. Oxford University Press, Oxford
4 Castells M. The new public sphere: Global civil society, communication networks, and global governance. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 2008 Mar;616(1):78-93.
5 Sassen S. Global city. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 1991.