Written by Gabriela Grigorita
Half the world’s population lives in cities and this is likely to increase to 70% over the next 20 years. Cities provide jobs, are centers of innovation and wealth creation, but also often are hotspots of air pollution (e.g. particulate matter, NO2), noise, heat and disease. It is well known that the high density of buildings and roads may cause the so-called urban heat island, defined as build-up areas that are hotter than nearby rural areas. Furthermore, cities often lack accessible green space and physical activity levels of people are below recommended guidelines. They also generate a large proportion of CO2 emissions and contribute significantly to the climate crisis. Recent estimates show that 60%-80% of final energy use globally is consumed by urban areas and more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced within urban areas.
Up to 9 million people die each year because of ambient air pollution levels, 3.2 million because of lack of physical activity and 1.2 million because of traffic accidents. Noise causes more than 1.8 million deaths a year in Europe alone and heat may cause as much as around 0.4% of premature mortality annually worldwide. Population growth, aging and the climate crisis put a further burden on cities in many aspects, including health.
A team from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) has identified European cities with the highest and lowest death rates attributable to a lack of green space. The team analyzed more than 1,000 cities of over 100,000 residents in 31 European countries. The results were published in The Lancet Planetary Health and concluded that up to 43,000 premature deaths could be prevented each year if these cities met the World Health Organization’s guidelines on housing proximity to green space.
Green spaces bring a long range of benefits to our health, including lower premature mortality, longer life expectancy, fewer mental health problems, fewer cardiovascular diseases, better cognitive functioning in children and healthier seniors and babies. As we all know, green also helps mitigate air pollution, heat and noise levels, help capture CO2, and provide opportunities for exercise and social interaction.