Clean Air And Sustainable Urban Planning As ‘Spatial Vaccines’ Against COVID-19
Local authorities in Lima, Peru promote cycling as part of a sustainable mobility effort.

Second in a series– Cities that clean up their air quality, and promote other urban sustainability measures can help reduce residents’ risks during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as going forward, say a growing number of urban air quality and sustainability experts.

That message was highlighted in two events last week and today, which were co-hosted by the World Health Organization, UN Habitat, UN Environment and others, in observance of World Cities Day, on Saturday 31 October.  

While of course infectious diseases can spread anytime people fail to take the appropriate individual precautions, the risks of COVID-19 infection in high-density cities drop when cities are well planned, organized and managed, as those kinds of cities are better able to facilitate social distancing and deliver health services, said Eduardo Moreno, Head of Knowledge and Innovation at UN Habitat, at last week’s event on “People-Oriented Urbanization: Planning and Public Health Working Together to Generate Healthy Urban Environments.”

The event was co-hosted by UN Habitat, WHO and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Said Moreno: “What we can see is there is no correlation [in disease spread] with density.. what is strongly correlated is overcrowding, which is completely different….Cities with high level densities that are well-planned and well-organized will have more capacities to better organize delivery of health services and the possibility of affordable housing.”  

Eduardo Moreno, Head of Knowledge and Innovation at UN-Habitat, at the “People Oriented Urbanization” event.

Jens Aerts, a senior urban planner at the World Urban Campaign, described it as “urban planning as a spatial vaccine” for COVID-19. 

Lockdowns Brought Respite from Health-Harmful Air Pollution – What Next?

Meanwhile, lockdowns, however painful, also created a respite in heavy air pollution levels in many cities around the world as well as bringing to the fore sustainability innovations, like the rapid and massive addition of bicycle lanes in some cities, to provide people with safe transport options – which are also much cleaner over the long-term.

“The pandemic is really…demonstrating to some degree, how cities and countries are able to act swiftly and, in many parts of the world, collaboratively to address a global public health crisis,” said Glynda Bathan, Deputy Executive Director of Clean Air Asia at a BreatheLife into Cities for Clean Air, Climate and Health event on Friday. “In the aftermath [of the pandemic], we must focus on harnessing that same spirit and energy in continuing to fight the climate and air crisis as the next imminent existential threat.” 

The BreatheLife event was co-organized by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) and WHO. 

The BreatheLife initiative was established by WHO, CCAC, UNEP, and the World Bank as a venue for collaboration and exchange between cities in order to achieve safe air quality levels by 2030, based on the WHO Air Quality Guidelines, a goal that would also reduce pollutants like black carbon particles that contribute heavily to climate change. It has a network of over 70 cities, regions, and countries. 

Unhealthy Air in Cities and Air Pollution Solutions

Nine out of 10 people worldwide, and over 98 percent of people living in large cities in low-income regions breathe unhealthy air. Globally, air pollution leads to an estimated 7 million deaths every year from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as lung cancer.

A growing body of evidence has also suggested that people who live in cities with high levels of air pollution may also be more at risk from serious illnesss with COVID-19, either directly or indirectly because they already suffer from chronic respiratory or heart conditions, which increase their risks of serious COVID-19 illness. Experiences from three cities were shared in the BreatheLife webinar, showing the actions cities are taking to implement air pollution solutions.

COVID-19 Accelerated Air Pollution Awareness – And Mitigation Measures
Nathalie Roebbel, WHO Coordinator for Air Pollution and Urban Health, speaking at the BreatheLife event.

In London, United Kingdom, which was the first mega city to join the BreatheLife campaign, the city has committed to reaching WHO air quality guideline levels. To that end, improved air quality monitoring measures and data assessment have been put in place to both inform the public and policymakers about how progress is advancing. Another programme has supported a shift to electric vehicles for the city iconic taxi system, an effort that has been embraced by London cab drivers.  

In Quito, Ecuador, meanwhile, priority has been placed on the use of cleaner bus technologies as part of a long-term plan, including shifting from diesel to electric vehicles to improve air quality. In addition, cycling and pedestrian lanes are being constructed across larger parts of Quito to incentivize everyday ecological means of mobility.

In Accra, Ghana, where open waste burning is a major air pollution source, measures to encourage domestic waste separation and control ad-hoc waste burning on street corners and in front of businesses are now being implemented. These should achieve multiple benefits for air quality and health. Community outreach and engagement programs have been put in place to inform individuals about the environmental and health risks of burning waste. Through partnerships with local community and religious leaders, and private waste disposal companies, city leaders have been making inroads on the behavior of individuals and households and contributing to cleaner air. 

“In Accra, most of our pollution…was from waste,” said Desmond Appiah, Chief Sustainability and Resilience Advisor to the Mayor of Accra. “There were over 46 waste dump sites in Accra. And we mapped it out, we were able to, through the leadership of the mayor, to close about 37 of these illegal dump sites. Some of these areas were created because of poor waste management in some communities.

Illegal waste dump site near Agbogbloshie, Accra, Ghana.

“We picked two communities that we believed had a very high incidence of burning of waste as a means of disposing of the waste, and we focused on those communities,” he added. To build support for the initiative, the city reached out to local community figures and launched school education programs to inform children, who would then inform their parents and households about the separation of waste and proper disposal of waste.

Cities are increasingly developing new visions for more equitable and sustainable urban systems, prompted by COVID-19 to reform national and city government organization, economies and fiscal priorities. The enormous range of efforts made by cities and cities leaders is captured in the hundreds of BreatheLife campaign stories, and specific to the COVID response, in the portfolio of case studies released by the WHO on Wednesday. 

“Addressing air pollution will have a benefit…on multiple levels of risk factors and health outcomes,” said Nathalie Roebbel, WHO Coordinator for Air Pollution and Urban Health. “If, for example, we change the…structur[ing] of the cities, [it] will maybe increase the opportunity for people to use bicycles or walking. Certainly this will not only have an impact on reduced car use, and therefore reduced air pollution, it will also have benefits in better physical activity and reduction of obesity.”

“[Communities] play a vital role in building economically, socially and environmentally sustainable cities,” said António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, in a statement about World Cities Day. “As we rebuild from the pandemic and engage in the Decade of Action for Sustainable Development, we have an opportunity to reset how we live and interact…Let’s put our communities at the heart of the cities of the future.” 

Moving from Reaction to Prevention 

Overall, collaboration between city planners, development and health sectors is key to curbing pollution emissions, promoting clean energy, and designing neighborhoods and cities that enhance the overall health of residents, and thus reduce fundamental risks associated with the  transmission of diseases, which can lead to the explosion of pandemics.

“The health sector is largely focused on curative and medical results through health infrastructure, ignoring preventative health…A lot of determinants that actually affect health are outside the control of the health sector: housing, air quality, etc.,” said Virinder Sharma, senior urban development specialist at the Asian Development Bank. 

“There is clear evidence that the health sector needs to be [more] knowledgeable on the health effects of air pollution, so capacity building needs to be done in order to have the healthcare workforce itself being able to inform patients, treat them, but also influence decision makers in other sectors,” said Roebbel. 

Image Credits: Partnerships for Health Cities, WHO, Accra Metropolitan Assembly.

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