We spend most of our time indoors, inside our houses, in cities. Already unfair inequalities such as how well our houses are built to protect us from cold and heat, how secure our tenure rights are to stay put, how much space we have, how polluted the air we breathe is, how close the nearest green space is, how safe it is to walk or ride bikes, significantly affect our health.1 Moreover, the neighbourhoods we live in and pollution of the air by minuscule black carbon particles from diesel vehicles, coal-fired power stations and home fires (which enter our blood and then our lungs, heart, brain and the placenta) add further to the health effects of our housing, as well as carbon emissions. Of the four billion people who already live in cities, close to one billion live in slums or informal dwellings. Slum dwellers, while facing the common problems just noted, also face greater insecurity from the high risks of forced evictions and the lack of essential infrastructure such as clean water supply and sewerage.
The rising risks of extreme weather events – storm surges, cloud-bursts, floods, high winds and wild fires – make people who live in informal housing or slums on unstable, deforested mountain sides, or flood plains, even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Upgrading housing, using simple but effective energy efficiency measures like roof insulation, solar lighting and heating, can go some way to improve living standards and reduce the health impacts of heatwaves. Women’s community groups, like the Federation of Slum Dwellers International, have found that by collecting and counting data about local conditions, they can not only create and learn new forms of governance together, but in alliance with their local municipalities, can ensure a fairer share of resources and begin to see an improvement in their health and their children’s health.
Compact urban living generates fewer carbon emissions. The New Urban Agenda2 launched at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador emphasises this, and highlights that by framing the health of the urban human population and planet as indivisible, central and local governments, and those people living in formal and informal housing, can work together for greater fairness in allocating resources, while increasing local and wider urban sustainability.
Defined by Philippa Howden-Chapman
1. Yvonne Rydin et al. ‘Shaping cities for health: complexity and the planning of urban environments in the 21st century’, The Lancet, 2012, 379,9831,2079-108.
2. ‘Health as the pulse of the new urban agenda’: United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (World Health Organization), Quito, Ecuador, October 2016.