Climate change is impacting urban health. Here is why and how we should measure it

The 2015-2016 Zika outbreak in South America showed how increasing temperatures and growing populations expose urban areas to considerable health risks. In turn, increasing concentrations of population and changes in eating habits in the developing world have direct, measurable impacts on the state of the climate.

Such impacts are currently being explored by an innovative project launched by the Lancet medical journal. The “Lancet Climate Change Countdown” aims to establish a process for tracking progress on the health impacts of climate hazards as well as health co-benefits of climate action and other related dimensions – like economics and finance, political and broader engagement. Presenting the tool at Resilient Cities 2017, Dr. Paul Wilkinson, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, explained that the main aim of the project is to try and go beyond the mere measurement of exposure, to quantify actual health impacts of climate change and unrealized health benefits of insufficient climate action.

In order to stay on the pulse of urban health globally and locally, collecting standardized, reliable data is crucial. A project started by the University College of London, called SHUE – Sustainable Healthy Urban Environments, has produced a database which includes a globally representative random sample of cities, stratified by population size, wealth, and climate. The database, presented by Jonathon Taylor, University College London, has been developed to provide a basis to explore the various dimensions of sustainability, by overcoming current bias in data collection and organization. In fact, most datasets are not representative of diversity in geography, wealth and type of ecosystem. The final aim is to provide reliable data for researchers and policy-makers to implement data-based actions for resilience-building.

Effective management of the built environment is also key driver for improving urban health. In fact, it has the potential to considerably reduce health risks such as the ones posed by the so-called “aedes-borne diseases”: zika, dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya. All viruses with one common trait: they’re all carried by aedes aegypti, also known as the urban mosquito.

Steve Lindsay, Public Health Entomologist at Durham University, pointed out how weak or non-existent vector control puts tropical and sub-tropical cities and towns at great risk from these diseases. The culprits are as common and unassuming as used tires, gutters and water storage containers. To start combating mosquitos in more effective ways, a good management of the built environment would require removing gutters; ensuring a constant and reliable flow of pipe water, so that residents can do away with water storage; redesigning houses to keep people cool and mosquitos out.

According to the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, the response to climate change could be “the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century”. It’s now up to researchers and local leaders to team up and find the best ways to seize that opportunity.

This blog post is based on discussions from the Resilient Cities 2017 session:Urban health in a changing environment: Challenges and opportunities.