Urban planning, environmental exposures and health

By Mark Nieuwenhuijsen PhD, Researcher - CREAL 

The Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) is one of the main research groups that conducts research around the theme of Urban planning, environmental exposures and health.  Nowadays, The majority of people live in cities and urbanisation is continuing. Cities have long been known to be society’s predominant engine of innovation and wealth creation, yet they are also its main source of pollution and disease. 

There is considerable variation in the levels of environmental exposures such as air pollution, noise, temperature and green space within cities. Urban and transport planning indicators such as road network, distance to major roads, traffic density, household density, industry and natural and green space explain a large proportion of the variability of air pollution, noise and temperature within urban areas. Personal behaviour including mobility adds further variability to personal exposures, determines variability in green space and UV exposure, and can provide increased levels of physical activity. 

Air pollution, noise and temperature have been associated with adverse health effects including increased morbidity and premature mortality, UV and  green space with both positive and negative health effects and physical activity with many health benefits. In many cities there is still scope for further improvement in environmental quality through targeted policies. Making cities ‘green and healthy’ goes far beyond simply reducing CO2 emissions. Environmental factors are highly modifiable, and environmental interventions at the community level, such as urban and transport planning, have been shown to be promising and more cost effective than interventions at the individual level. However the urban environment is a complex interlinked system.

Decision-makers need not only better data on the linkages between the complexity of factors in the environment and development processes affecting human health, but also enhanced understanding of such linkages to be able to know at which level to target their actions. New research tools, method and paradigms such as geographical information systems, smartphones, and other GPS devices, small sensors to measure environmental exposures, remote sensing and the exposome paradigm can now provide this information.

While in cities there are often pillars of urban planning, mobility and transport, parks and green space, environmental department, (public) health department that do not work together well enough, multisectorial approaches are needed to tackle the problems. A holistic approach to urban planning, environmental, transport and energy issues has to be adopted, as the many components of the natural ecosystem are interwoven with those of the social, economic, cultural and political urban system in a unique manner. A sustainable city must have attractive open public spaces and promote sustainable, inclusive and healthy mobility. Some potential policies such as a reduction of car use by increasing active transportation and increasing green space areas may have joint effects in that they may not only reduce environmental exposures such as air pollution, noise, and temperature (i.e heat islands), but also increase physical activity, UV exposure, and social contacts and reduce stress, and thereby reduce morbidity and premature mortality. Furthermore it creates co-benefits such as reduction in CO2 reduction and congestion. The city of the future needs to be a green city, a social city, an active city, a healthy city.  

There is still large needs for further research and at CREAL this is conducted through a number of EC funded projects including the international TAPAS study, examining the health impacts of active transport in six European cities, the EC funded PHENOTYPE study, examining the relations between green space and health, ICEPURE, that examines exposure to and health effects of solar UV exposure, ESCAPE (and related VE3SPA), that examines the long term health effects of air pollution, NIH funded CAVA  which aims to validate smartphone based data collection methods, EC funded CITISENSE that aims to empower citizens using smartphone technology, EC funded HELIX, that examines the early life exposome and childhood diseases, EC funded EXPOsOMICs that examines the air pollution and water exposome and health and EC funded PASTA study, which promotes active transportation through sustainable transport.

About: The Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) was established in 2005, as a joint initiative of the Catalan Government, the Institut Municipal d´Investigació Mèdica and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, and in few years has become a global leader in environmental epidemiology research with a strong focus on the influence of environmental conditions including air pollution, noise, green space, temperature, UV, POPs and merging chemicals  on mortality and morbidity including child health, cancer, respiratory diseases. Currently CREAL has around 110 staff and it is based in the prestigious medical science park (PRBB ) of Barcelona.