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Vital Stories

Empowering Cities to Save Lives: A World Cities Day Conversation with Ariella Rojhani

Over half of the world’s population currently lives in an urban center, a number expected to rise to 68% by 2050. As small towns grow into cities, and existing cities swell into megacities, urban leaders have more power than ever before to help their residents live healthier, longer lives.

This year, World Cities Day presents an opportunity to assess the role of cities, their policymakers and their people, in transforming the fight against noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and road injuries – together responsible for more than 80% of deaths worldwide.

We sat down with Ariella Rojhani, Director of the Partnership for Healthy Cities at Vital Strategies, to learn more about this global network of cities committed to saving lives through NCD and injury prevention.

1. Cities are growing, and quickly. What are some of the challenges of rapid urbanization?

The more people that are moving to and living in urban areas, the greater the demands on city infrastructure, services, and natural resources. The byproducts of this strain – informal or unaffordable housing, income insecurity, air pollution, and overcrowding, to name a few – have dramatic implications on human health and wellbeing. Improving health in a city therefore requires more than topical fixes; it demands long-term planning and critical look at a range of urban systems. While this is no easy task, it is necessary for transformative change.

2. How is the Partnership for Healthy Cities initiative supporting cities to reduce NCDs and injuries?

The Partnership is the first global network to unite cities to tackle NCDs and injuries, spurred by the 2016 appointment of former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as World Health Organization (WHO) Global Ambassador for NCDs – a position renewed in 2018. Bloomberg Philanthropies, WHO and Vital Strategies joined forces to assemble financial support, convening power, and implementation assistance – to activate this prestigious network of 54 cities working to close the gap between global policy and local action on NCD and injury prevention.

As the initiative’s implementing partner, Vital Strategies is supporting cities on taking targeted action on proven, high-impact policy interventions. Being part of this collective movement has been empowering to each of the participating cities, as they have a diverse peer network on which they can rely for collaboration and support. This leads to more opportunities for sharing successes and challenges, and increases the likelihood that we can replicate what works (and avoid repeating what doesn’t!).

Another key aspect of our approach is a nimble program structure that allows us to provide the exact type of support needed to propel each city toward achieving their goals to reduce NCDs or injuries. This may be technical guidance, financial or human resources, or even good publicity! Every city is different, but we’re able to meet that challenge.

3. How are cities uniquely positioned to address NCDs and injuries? What is the role of city leaders?

Mayors and their teams can often move policy or infrastructure changes forward with agility. The impact can happen at a large scale, reaching large populations. City governments control which policies are adopted and enforced; they also have direct authority over many public spaces that influence people’s risk for NCDs as well as their physical safety. They can use that authority to save lives, whether it’s by removing sugary drinks from public schools or adding infrastructure to improve pedestrian safety at busy intersections.

I would also say that mayors are also extremely visible figures in their cities, and when a leader takes on a cause, it can change the entire course of action and lead to results. We continue to encourage mayors and other city leaders to step forward and use their platforms to champion public health.

4. Are there particular Partnership cities that stand out to you? Perhaps because of a unique challenge or unique solution?

I can’t choose favorites! But I do like to highlight cities that have found creative solutions to extremely vexing problems. One example that stands out is Cape Town, whose work on reducing consumption of sugary drinks during last year’s distressing water shortage proved that health can still be a priority in times of crisis. I also applaud San Francisco, Chicago, Barcelona, and Philadelphia for developing new ways to collect and analyze data in order to improve health outcomes – as well as cities like Cali and Ouagadougou which continue to serve as inspiration to their regional peers on issues of healthy foods and nutritional standards.

The most persistent challenge across the board is learning the exact ways in which every city differs from one another.

5. What lessons have you learned since the start of the Partnership?

Again, there are so many lessons to choose from. But what floats to the top for me is the importance of remaining flexible and working within each city’s political context; every locality has its own norms and procedures, and we have to be open to adjusting the way we work to mirror what is considered appropriate and what is possible to do locally. I’ve also learned to never underestimate the power of a committed and passionate leader to carry the agenda forward. We are very fortunate to collaborate with so many city leaders who view this work as not just a job, but as their personal mission. Their willingness to advocate for stronger policies and better enforcement means that hundreds of millions of people will enjoy healthier lives.

About the Partnership for Healthy Cities

The Partnership for Healthy Cities is a prestigious global network of cities committed to saving lives by preventing noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and injuries. Supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies in partnership with WHO, as well as Vital Strategies, this initiative enables cities around the world to deliver a high-impact policy or programmatic intervention to reduce NCD risk factors in their communities.

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Ariella Rojhani is a global health advocate and strategist with over eight years of experience. Rojhani is the Director of the Partnership in Healthy Cities at Vital Strategies, an initiative that enables cities to deliver proven interventions to prevent noncommunicable diseases and injuries. Follow Ariella on Twitter at @ariellain140