More than 54% of the world’s population lives in urban or peri-urban areas, a figure that is expected to reach 70% by 2050, although in areas such as the European Union it has already been reached (73%).
In addition, industry and commercial activities are concentrated in these peri-urban areas, so that the urban ecosystems have become great centers of resource consumption, and zones of production and emission of potentially polluting substances.
Although since 2000 one of the main pollutants in urban environments has been eliminated or reduced, the lead from gasoline, old house paint or pipes; exist multitude of pollutants organic and inorganic that continue to cause different health problems and that cause millions of deaths a year.
This high and rapid population concentration puts the authorities in check on how to make urban environments increasingly sustainable and healthy, considering that the population of these areas will continue to grow, as well as the associated industry.
However, to achieve this sustainability it is necessary to combine it with the industrial / economic interests Or what is the same, job, and that is a challenge that is sometimes not easy to tackle. This is something that we are seeing in large European cities with the health and environmental problems caused by transport.
Worse and worse air quality
Air pollution is one of the great problems in urban environments, due to the emission of polluting particles, both by industry and by transport, being responsible for nearly 500,000 deaths in Europe and even 7 million as indicated in 2012 by the WHO.
Inorganic pollutants (eg heavy metals), organic (PCBs, PAHs, etc.), CO2, NO2 or SO2 emissions; atmospheric particles (PM 2.5, etc.) … a high number of risks that are increasingly present in cities (industry, transport, construction, etc.) and with a greater impact on human health.
Recent data from the WHO in a study of more than 2000 cities around the world, it was indicated that 98% of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants in countries with medium or low development, did not meet environmental air quality standards. When the countries were more advanced, only 56% did not comply.
Uncontrolled growth of cities
The absence of planning in cities due to uncontrolled growth is another of the great challenges faced by urban populations, especially in less developed countries: rapidly growing urban population, absence or deficiency of sanitation / sanitary networks or the existence of industrial zones, normally of heavy industry and coexisting with “residential” zones.
Countries like Bangladesh are a clear example of this. The rapid economic growth of the country (6% in 2013) attracts an increasing number of people due to the possibility of work in a very poor country, where the urban population grows between 3 and 5% annually.
Air pollution is responsible for nearly 500,000 deaths in Europe and up to 7 million as indicated in 2012 by the WHO
However, this growth has become uncontrolled with a high number of people living in the suburbs, without sanitation networks and close to areas with a possible impact from climate change such as marshes, or industrial and mining production centers, have converted These cities are centers of disaster risk: pollution, lack of sanitation networks, greater ease for the transmission of diseases; closely related to lack of sanitation, etc.
And the situation in Bangladesh is not unique as it is similar for many countries in Africa, Asia and South America; where between 700 and 1000 million people live in marginal neighborhoods, without access to a minimum health care and where the transmission of diseases is easier.
New megacities can be incubators for new health epidemics, with a greater and rapid spread, which can become threats at a global level, as was observed with the cases of Ebola in the African suburbs or with Zika in South America. In this sense, planning can be a powerful tool for improving human health and reducing the risk of communicable diseases.
The lack of planning in cities due to uncontrolled growth is another of the great challenges that urban populations face
And we cannot forget two major problems associated with the uncontrolled growth of megacities: global change and violence.
Megacities are increasingly vulnerable to global change, both due to the increased risk of flooding as they grow on areas of natural channels … or due to the lack or poor quality of access to drinking water, a problem that currently affects more than 150 million people. In addition, rapid and uncontrolled growth is also associated with an increase in violence: young unemployed population, greater inequalities, drug trafficking, etc …
Uncontrolled growth and human health … a little closer
You don’t have to go that far to see how the absence of planning can influence human health in developed countries. The Parkland in the cities, which are increasingly scarce, they play a very important role and to which it is hardly given importance.
Green areas work like filter of polluting substances and elements, sound barrier, etc. or an important effect on the improvement of the mental health of its inhabitants: they are important recreational areas for a population where sedentary lifestyle (home-work-home) is a problem. And this sedentary lifestyle is usually associated with an increase in obesity problems or type II diabetes, health problems that are growing in developed countries.
We can do something?
Many of the health problems associated with cities are occurring in less developed countries, although health alerts for air pollution in European cities remind us that it is not a problem of poor countries. It is a real problem, which we have on our doorstep and which will increase in the coming years.
There is a big problem to combat these problems and it is called money. Although a global and coordinated action is required, including the richest and poorest countries, a lot of money is required to “facilitate” a change of mentality and help the poorest countries to a more sustainable growth with the creation of networks sanitation, etc. and we live in a time where human health seems a minor concern and there is no more to see initiatives against global change.
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