Health and Wellbeing in the Changing Urban Environment (2011)


Over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and the urban population is increasing by about 2% annually.  More than two billion people are expected to be added to urban populations over the next three decades and a significant proportion of these will be living in informal or slum settlements.  Urbanization presents opportunities and risks, as well as enormous challenges for maintaining and improving human health and wellbeing.  Systems analysis, which is explicitly designed to deal with complexity, and which draws on insights and inputs from diverse scientific disciplines, is an approach which has unique potential to address these issues.

Urban areas are extremely complex environments in which a large number of environmental, social, cultural and economic factors have an impact on individual and population health and wellbeing.  Urban governance and decision-making structures associated with managing these various factors are usually comprised of variable elements in different regional and local contexts; they reflect different degrees of coordination and coherence.  Better use of existing and yet-to-be-developed scientific knowledge can surely have a positive impact on urban health and wellbeing.  The challenge for the scientific community is to generate and communicate this knowledge in a way that can usefully inform policy choices based on the realities of the urban environment.

This international scientific programme, approved by the ICSU 30th General Assembly in Rome and described within the plan, proposes a new conceptual framework for considering the multi-factorial nature of both the determinants and the manifestations of health and wellbeing in urban populations.  General criteria are presented for the development of research projects within this framework and illustrative examples of potential projects described. Projects envisaged for the science plan will be multi-disciplinary and collaborative, utilize systems analysis modelling methodology using feasibly-obtainable data, simultaneously address multiple aspects of urban health, and be designed to generate understanding and products useful to policy-makers.

In addition to stimulating specific research projects, the new programme will focus on: developing new methodologies and identifying data needs and knowledge gaps; building and strengthening scientific capacity; and facilitating communication and outreach. This is envisaged as a 10-year initiative, to allow sufficient time for the research and policy communities that are concerned with urban health and wellbeing to adopt systems analysis approaches.

Printed copies of this report are available from the ICSU Secretariat.

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