The United Nations dubbed October 31 World Cities Day in 2013 to shine a light on the opportunities and challenges of urbanization. This year’s theme, “innovative governance, open cities,” speaks especially well to the Partnership for Healthy Cities’ strategy to tackle noncommunicable diseases (NCDs): supporting big ideas on a small scale.
With the majority of the world’s population now living in cities, urban centers are uniquely positioned to make vital health care improvements at scale, through data collection, infrastructure changes, mass media to influence policy and behavior change and more.
The Partnership comprised of more than 50 cities, of which Vital Strategies is the implementing partner, operates on the principle that cities are engines of change — and that at a time when NCD’s (cancer, heart disease, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes) have suddenly outpaced communicable diseases worldwide, well-tested urban health interventions must come into play.
The Partnership was created by the World Health Organization’s Global Ambassador for NCDs and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to combat a crisis with staggering proportions:
When combined with traffic fatalities, NCDs kill 44 million people each year and are responsible for almost 80 percent of global deaths.
The NCD crisis is mounting especially quickly in low- and middle-income countries, where the increased availability and low cost of tobacco, junk food and sugary drinks has deadly effects that are all too familiar to the planet’s richer nations.
With the need for fast and effective action, the Partnership has moved from signups to implementation in a matter of a few months: Many of the cities are already moving forward with their public health initiatives.
Montevideo, Uruguay, for instance, is targeting salt intake in a campaign that takes salt off of tables and will train restaurant and school lunchroom staff about the health benefits of doing so; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is redesigning the streets in one deadly high crash neighborhood to protect pedestrians from speeding traffic; and Bengaluru, India, is running a haunting series of personal stories about the risks of second-hand smoke, among other strong anti-smoking efforts.
Helping make children safer while walking or biking to and from school is a big Partnership theme: Mexico City, Toronto and Boston are among the cities already at work on some combination of expanded school safety zones, beefed up police or crossing guard presence on key routes and special tools to help parents keep track.
So far, the cities are on course to make a considerable difference for their cities. The global effects should not be underestimated, however.
While these mayors and city officials had their own residents in mind when they joined the Partnership, the fact is that they are also contributing to United Nations goals of reducing by 50% the number of global traffic deaths by 2020 and by one third the rates of premature mortality from NCDs by the year 2030.
Moving quickly on these global targets is a matter of survival for many millions of people around the world and therefore a high priority for Vital Strategies. Fortunately, like most cities, the Partnership municipalities are moving quickly to get things done, and saving lives in the process.