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Why We Need To Act Now On Urban Health

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Professor Haim Yacobi says urban health needs to be a central part of every aspect of planning.

Why We Need To Act Now On Urban Health

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, photographed in October 2018.

Credit: Haim Yacobi

If you let people live in densely populated, informal urban settlements, without basic services like clean water, electricity or sewage systems, they will get sick – particularly the most vulnerable such as children. This is not rocket science.

Yet all over the Global South, this is happening as cities grow and we know it will keep happening in the coming years as the world becomes increasingly urbanised. “What happens next?” asks Professor Haim Yacobi at The Bartlett’s Development Planning Unit (DPU).

In many parts of the world, when children become extremely unwell with avoidable conditions, such as diarrhea, they end up in hospital and are treated at great cost. Then, when they are well again, they are sent back to a place with no sewage, electricity or running water. And we all know what happens next.

Richer countries in the Global North are stuck in the same pattern, Yacobi says, with people driving rather than walking in their cities and cheap, poor-quality food on sale everywhere, which leads to obesity as well as pollution-related health problems.

“There is a big question that we need to ask ourselves,” says Yacobi. “And that’s, ‘How come we invest so much of our resources in healing people and then send them back to the source of the problem?’ We must understand that we can’t just blame our genes or DNA when we get sick. Very often the problem is the environment where we live.”

How come we invest so much of our resources in healing people and then send them back to the source of the problem?

Professor Haim Yacobi

Why We Need To Act Now On Urban Health

Freetown Sierra Leone, photographed in May 2018.

Credit: Haim Yacobi

Planning for urban health

In recent years, with rapid urbanisation, awareness has grown of the importance of designing cities to be much healthier places to live. The need for that has become all the more pressing because of new challenges: population density, informal settlements and migration, for example, all contributed to the rapid spread of Ebola in West Africa in 2014. In the Global North, homelessness, which is increasing with the withdrawal of the welfare state, is an urban phenomenon with serious health implications that planners could in future seek to address.

What’s needed to tackle these challenges, says Yacobi, is a new generation of professionals, experts and scholars who are educated and trained to think of health as a central part of every aspect of city planning.

At the DPU, Yacobi is leading a new Health in Urban Development MSc, starting in 2019, which aims to create a new generation of “socially sensitive urban health practitioners” who will become ambassadors for urban health wherever they go on to work. Students will learn from multidisciplinary teachers to seek solutions that really work for the local population. If you install toilets in an informal settlement, for example, you also have to think about gender issues, local cultural sensitivities and ask yourself who will be responsible for keeping them clean and operational.

Students will also learn to challenge established thinking and rather than ignoring informal settlements or hoping that they will be eliminated, accepting that, with rapid urbanisation, this will always be part of the urban process and should be integrated into the way planners intervene.

“We hope that our students will go on to work as planners, architects, public health consultants,” says Yacobi. “They will have the tools to be integrated into different institutions – municipalities, international organisations and human rights organisations.”

The Development Planning Unit is a world-leading research and postgraduate teaching unit that helps to build the capacity of national governments, local authorities, NGOs, aid agencies and businesses working towards socially-just and sustainable development in the Global South. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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