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How Can Smart Cities Improve Urban Public Health?

Aug 21, 2020 10:30:00 AM - Written by Joe Appleton


Urban public health is currently in the spotlight as city populations struggle to deal with the threat of COVID-19. As lockdown measures take their toll on urban communities, city dwellers have been forced to see their cities through new eyes, and the results have been worrying.

A study from the UN has found that 68% of the global population will be living in cities and metropolitan areas by 2050. However, many researchers believe that the stats will likely be far higher, and further estimates suggest that up to 90% of the planet’s population could be living in megacities within the next 30 years.

The current coronavirus pandemic has proven that cities will need to adapt if they want to nurture healthier, happier, and safer populations. Urban public health will need to evolve to cater for denser populations, and the potential hazards that go along with it.

How can Smart Cities improve urban Public Health?

What Is Urban Public Health?

Urban public health is an umbrella term that refers to a range of issues that affect urban populations. It can mean many things, but it focuses on urban environments, and the challenges and changing conditions that can affect urban populations.

Though rural public health and urban public health face similar problems and have a lot of similarities, the unique conditions of city living create very different solutions to these problems. The current COVID-19 situation is a prime example of how the two areas intersect but also differ.

For example, a rural community is better suited for controlling the spread of a virus. Rural areas have more space that makes social distancing easier. Green spaces are more accessible. Public infrastructure is more spread out. And of course, most rural residents aren’t confined to small apartments for extended periods of time.

It’s not all negative news for urban dwellers though.

Urban communities have many advantages over their rural counterparts, including access to employment, access to culture, and access to resources. Unfortunately, as urban populations continue to rise, those advantages will be outweighed by disadvantages.

As populations increase, city residents will become more exposed to pollution, toxic air, and illnesses. Right now, the COVID-19 situation has proven that disease transmission is faster and more deadly in urban environments. What’s more, those who are more disadvantaged than others will suffer the most. Cities with large homeless populations have higher disease transmission rates, and can lead to chronic health problems. And of course, there are many psychological effects that are more likely to manifest in city residents rather than their rural counterparts.

The effects of the lockdown has taken its toll on urban residents all over the world. Strict lockdown procedures have seen families confined to small spaces. Urban mobility has evolved into an entirely new industry as private car use has plummeted and public transport passenger numbers have declined. As more residents turn to walking and cycling, it has been noted that many cities aren’t particularly pedestrian friendly, with few green spaces, and limit places for recreation.

A combination of these things has put urban public health and public safety at risk. So how can cities go about improving the overall health of its residents?

How Can Cities Improve Urban Public Health?

There are a number of ways that cities can improve the health of their residents. Many of the world’s largest cities have already taken great strides in the right direction, and one of the positive effects of the Coronavirus pandemic has been the rapid acceleration of these plans. Unfortunately, the pandemic has also brought a number of unique challenges that cities will also need to factor in to their future plans.

Here are a number of ways that cities can improve urban public health for the long-term, and during the coronavirus pandemic too.

Prioritize the core principals of Urban Public Health

Regardless of COVID-19, it’s essential that city governments work hard to promote public health overall. To do this, cities can take measures to reduce air pollution, reduce noise levels, promote exercise and healthy living, and expand public spaces. Similarly, it’s important to make public transport and alternative mobility solutions accessible to everyone by reducing ticket prices, improving cycling and walking infrastructure, and promoting car-free streets.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important for city governments to enforce social distancing measures, discourage large gatherings, and make appropriate restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. Clear instructions that can be accessed and understood by all residents will help boost urban public health during the crisis.

Focus on SMART healthcare

Healthcare is a key part of urban public health. Under normal circumstances, cities provide superior access to medical facilities when compared with rural regions. Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 pandemic has made urban areas hotspots for virus infection. To help take the strain off of hospitals, there are a number of smart healthcare measures that city governments can encourage.

Barcelona’s Telecare Service system was first introduced in 2013 (replacing a separate scheme that began in 2005) but it has been making headlines recently as more users sign up to the social service due to COVID-19. Using safety terminals with geo-localization technology, vulnerable citizens can call ambulances, carry out preventative actions, and get medical advice without having to leave their homes. It also facilitates home visits and monitors patient well-being. It’s a city council initiative that is taking the strain off of local hospitals.

E-health solutions like these are helping to decentralize healthcare and make top quality health services available to more citizens. Today, almost 100,000 users are taking advantage of this service. However, to make the most of these services, city governments should closely monitor data about urban public health and fine-tune health care solutions to adapt accordingly. Right now, COVID-19 contact tracing is a key strategy to winning the fight against the coronavirus.

Create pedestrian-friendly areas

Walking is a great way for citizens to get from A to B and keep fit at the same time. Unfortunately, most cities aren’t designed with walkers in mind. To help promote walking, cities can widen pavements and expand pedestrian infrastructure to help encourage citizens to walk to their destinations. Additionally, cycleways should also be widened and improved to give walkers and cyclists the space they need to travel through the city safely, with social distancing in mind.

With improved infrastructure, more residents could exercise outside of parks and recreation areas, which frees up more space in parks for other leisure activities.

Additional measures that could be installed during the pandemic could include designated timeslots or routes for vulnerable members of the public to use without having to come in to contact with larger crowds.

Improve public spaces

During the pandemic, it has become apparent that public spaces are more important than ever before. In fact, the development of some of the most famous public spaces in history began life as a reaction to previous pandemics and health issues. Today, development of better public spaces will be an important factor in making cities more desirable for residents.

Creating more public spaces and enlarging existing areas is an easy way to boost the overall urban public health of a city. With more space, parks will be more accessible to residents because it will be easier to adhere to social distancing rules. More space will also attract those looking to exercise, and residents who want to go outdoors but without encountering crowds.

Publicly accessible green spaces are needed for more than just outdoor recreation. Green spaces can actively counter the effects of climate change, by providing cool areas to counteract heat islands caused by buildings and roads. Green spaces can also improve air quality by naturally filtering polluted air.

Social Distancing in Smart Cities to improve urban Public Health

Provide separate transport lanes

Dividing existing roadways to better cater for diverse traffic is an easy way to promote cycling and other mobility methods and dissuade car traffic from entering areas of the city. By adding designated lanes for bicycle and scooter traffic, buses, and private vehicles, traffic can be reduced and public transport can operate smoothly. The result will be less crowded public transport, a healthy mobile population, and reduced air pollution.

For greater results during the pandemic, dedicated public transport lanes could run extra services to help vulnerable members of the community, allowing them to travel on public transport in less crowded buses, trams, and trains.

Create “Slow Street” infrastructure

“Slow streets” are designated areas within a city that limit the use of cars. Cars can be used, but only during designated times and for specific reasons. Instead of cars, the roadways can be repurposed for public use, either for cycle, pedestrian and other micromobility traffic, or as supplementary public space.

Creating slow streets isn’t an easy task, however, there are ways that local governments can pave the way for them. Some of these ways include replacing button-activated walkways at pedestrian crossings with automatic systems, and adjusting traffic lights to work in favour of pedestrian and cycle traffic. This can promote walking and reduce traffic flow at the same time. Naturally, reducing speed limits will also turn-off car users, and reduce air pollution at the same time.

Relocate necessary vehicle traffic

Car use is an important part of city infrastructure, and many businesses rely on them for transporting and delivering goods and providing services. While it’s more desirable to eliminate car use, it’s not a practical goal at the moment. Instead, cities can benefit from relocating cars to roadways that are more efficient and away from pedestrian areas or give them restricted access during certain times of the day.

Some cities are championing last-mile delivery systems. This allows large vehicles to deliver to depots located outside of town, that transfer their cargo to smaller and more practical vehicles that can take goods into city centers. This stops unnecessarily large and polluting vehicles from entering cities, which creates many benefits, from the health of residents to the wallet of the city government, as congestion is an expensive economic cost.

Adapt public transport

Public transport will need to evolve to help improve urban public health, especially now more than ever as the Coronavirus has devastated urban communities. We’ve covered the potential future of public transport in a separate article, however, there are a few key ways that the industry can evolve to improve the health of city residents.

By adding additional services at peak times of the day, customers can travel safely and avoid crowds. Contactless payments and ticketing reduce human interaction and prevent the spread of contagious diseases and viruses. Enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for passengers that don’t comply with social distancing regulations and mask-wearing rules can also help public transport adapt to the new situation.

Cashless services can help stop the spread of illnesses, but other measures can be taken to help keep the rate of infection down. Smart waste management can be employed by public transport operators to keep the cities clean and sanitary too. The struggle of waste management is one area of city planning that needs to be considered when tackling a health crisis.

But there’s more that public transport can do than simply preventing the spread of illnesses.

Public transport operators can reduce ticket costs to make mobility more accessible for those who need it most. Operators can also reduce maximum operating capacities to make the experience safer and more enjoyable too. They can also add bicycle parking facilities, promote bicycle and micromobility sharing schemes, and work with other transport operators to ensure better connections.

Encourage businesses to adapt to the situation

Urban public health can be affected by many things, but being able to procure goods, socialize, and unwind is one that’s often overlooked. Governments can help citizens pursue these activities by actively supporting and encouraging businesses to adapt to the current situation.

This can be done in many ways, from issuing clear instructions on what is allowed and what isn’t, to smoothening out bureaucracy and red tape to facilitate rapid business evolution. For example, local governments can fast track proposals for coffee shops and restaurants to operate on city streets in front of their properties to help avoid crowding.

Similarly, pavement areas can be widened where necessary to allow leisure areas to accommodate queues and extra seating.

House the homeless and vulnerable

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the link between housing and health in ways that were underreported before. Transmission of diseases is higher among disadvantaged populations and right now, cities all over the world are working hard to provide shelter and accommodation to the most vulnerable.

However, these measures could have been done before the crisis. For cities to thrive and stay healthy in future, it has been suggested that city governments should continue to work towards eliminating homelessness after the Coronavirus threat has abated.

Provide and adapt shelters and services for homeless people to allow for physical distancing and other COVID-19 safety measures

Make COVID-19 testing easily accessible

Unfortunately, the biggest threat to public health is still a clear and present danger. As the coronavirus spreads across the globe and shows no sign of slowing down, urban public health will continue to suffer. Making testing available and accessible to everyone is an important part of slowing the virus down and eventually stopping it in its tracks. Sadly, testing isn’t available to everyone.

For example, in some areas testing is only accessible by car, with authorities offering drive-thru testing centers. While the idea has merits, it does leave a large population unable to access testing. Many urban citizens don’t own cars, and urbanites are some of the most vulnerable to the spread of the infection.

When testing can be rolled out in an effective way, and other measures are installed, cities can begin to restore their urban public health, and ride the wave of innovation caused by the crisis to improve it for all of its citizens.

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Image Sources:

iStock, ID: 1209025695, Credit: ArtistGNDphotography
iStock, ID: 1180187740, Credit: Orbon Alija



Joe Appleton

Written by Joe Appleton

Joe Appleton is a freelance journalist, writer, and author, who has spent the last decade covering the automotive industry and urban mobility solutions. Though his work mainly focuses on transport, he has a particular interest in sustainable and greener living practices, for whole cities and individual homes alike.

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