World Environment Day: Make cities green for better health, says WHO

Green public spaces will likewise help tackle air pollution, writes Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia

Human health is closely connected to natural and man-made environments.
Each of us needs clean air to breathe, safe water to drink and a stable ecosystem in which we can live and work. We also need access to open spaces where we can exercise, play and keep our minds clear.
Rapid urbanization is challenging these and other health-related public goods. More than a third of all people in the South-East Asia Region now live in a town or city. This is expected to rise to around 43% by 2030. Among other effects, poorly managed urbanization is resulting in increased levels of ambient air pollution, contaminated food and drinking water, poor sanitation, noise pollution from traffic, and cramped living conditions. Public physical and mental health is being severely affected.
Noncommunicable diseases – many of them environment-related – now account for around 8.5 million deaths in the Region every year. Food containing traces of heavy metals and other detritus is being consumed Region-wide, causing a range of health issues including neurological and kidney damage. Contaminated water sources are contributing to antimicrobial resistance (AMR) among other effects, while a lack of space is creating a sense of physical and mental confinement. Globally, these and other environmental risks cause an estimated 12.6 million deaths a year.
By maintaining, creating and promoting green public spaces in urban settings, governments across the Region can mitigate these outcomes and advance public health and sustainable development. They can also reconnect us with a source of immense pleasure and joy: nature.
As outlined by WHO’s Healthy Cities Initiative, green public spaces such as parks and sports fields, woods and natural meadows, wetlands and other ecosystems, have multiple benefits.
Research shows that people that use open spaces are more likely to get the physical activity needed to keep NCDs at bay throughout the life-course. This will prove pivotal to achieving the Region’s 2030 goal of reducing premature NCD-related deaths by a third.
Green public spaces will likewise help tackle air pollution: Trees not only produce oxygen, they also filter out harmful air pollution, including airborne particulate matter.This is especially important given air pollution is estimated to cause 799 000 deaths in our Region annually.
Well-managed natural water sources will meanwhile help make clean and safe water accessible to all, while improved wastewater management will enhance the aquatic environment. This in turn will aid the battle against AMR by keeping antibiotic residues out of the ecosystem. More generally, better management of open spaces will help protect against e-waste dumping and other forms of toxic pollution that can contaminate soil and enter the food chain.
Importantly, green public spaces can also enhance mental health. Analysis suggests that physical activity in a natural environment can help remedy mild depression and reduce physiological stress indicators. As countries across the Region look to address mental health issues, the creation and maintenance of green public spaces should be considered an essential tool.
On World Environment Day, policymakers, local governments, city planners, public health and civil society organizations must recognize and embrace the critical connection between human health and natural and man-made environments. We must all resolve to make our cities greener and healthier, and bring them closer to nature.