Green spaces: an invaluable resource for delivering sustainable urban health.

Author:Robbel, Nathalie

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and climate change are two defining challenges of the twenty-first century, as each poses a significant threat to health and sustainable development. (1) NCDs, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and mental and neurological disorders, are currently responsible for 68 per cent of global mortality, (2) while climate change is projected to cause several hundred thousand deaths annually by 2030. (3) Risk factors for NCDs include exposure to air pollution and physical inactivity. Eighty-eight per cent of urban populations are exposed to levels of outdoor air pollution that exceed World Health Organization (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines, (4) and 3.7 million deaths globally were attributable to ambient air pollution in 2012. Furthermore, urbanization leads to changes in occupation and ways of life associated with lower levels of physical activity and higher automobile use. WHO attributes 3.2 million deaths annually to physical inactivity and 1.3 million to road traffic injuries. (5)

These risk factors share some of the same origins and solutions as climate change, including in the energy and transportation sectors, (6) and are especially relevant as urbanization increases. Rapid urbanization and population growth are major contributors to both NCDs and climate change. Urban areas facilitate activity across multiple sectors in which interventions can be made. Thus, in addition to posing formidable challenges, urban areas offer great opportunities for positive and sustainable change.

The world recently acknowledged the importance of these issues with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, by which Governments committed to ensuring progress across 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. Achieving progress on the NCD and climate change targets will depend on progress in many other priority areas and vice versa. Moving forward, it will be critical to choose interventions that aim at many targets and goals simultaneously in order to maximize impacts.


Parks, green spaces and waterways are important public spaces in most cities. They offer solutions to the effects of rapid, unsustainable urbanization on health and well-being. The social and economic benefits of urban green spaces are equally important, and should be viewed in the context of global issues such as climate change, as well as other priorities set out in the SDGs, including sustainable cities, public health and nature conservation.

Scientific literature describes various ways in which the natural environment can positively affect human health and well-being, as natural areas offer opportunities for physical activity, social contacts and stress reduction. (7) An increasing number of epidemiological studies have demonstrated various positive health effects of maintaining urban green...

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