More than half of the world’s population lives in cities today. A city’s most important asset is the health of its citizens. Yet, more than 80 percent of people living in urban areas are exposed to air pollution levels that exceed World Health Organization Air Quality Guidelines, and 98 percent of large cities in low-income regions suffer from unhealthy air. The list of illnesses caused by air pollution is long; from cancer, to asthma, strokes, heart disease and depression. Recent studies have also shown that exposure to air pollution may increase risk of Covid death. With these facts you would think more efforts would be put into providing clean air to urban citizens around the world.

Clean air post lockdown

The reality is that cities can play a key role in the fight against air pollution and climate change – by instituting policies and programs to curb emissions and promote the use of clean energy. If anything, this has been made evident during the pandemic of coronavirus. Air pollution and carbon emission levels have declined significantly in cities where lockdowns were imposed to slow down the spread of COVID-19. The decrease in emissions, and related air quality improvements, are mainly due to reductions in urban road transport.

Once you’ve had a taste of clean air, you can’t go back

Studies made in cities where lockdows were issued and pollution dramatically declined show that the citizens do not want to go back to the emission levels pre-corona. People living in Milan, Beijing and other major cities have had a taste of clean air and do not want to go back. Demands are now being made for local officials to bridge the gap between urban and territorial planning and the health sector to ensure clean air for the citizens, even if it would mean drastic changes to the cityscape and infrastructure. 

Something needs to be done

Without collective effort, air pollution in many cities will continue to worsen and climate change will accelerate. While each city is unique, a well-prepared health sector is key to address urbanization in a way that meets the health challenges faced by citizens in the 21st century, and it is also a drive to ensuring that people's health is at the centre of the urban transformation.

As citizens, we can also contribute to creating urban environments that preserve natural urban ecosystems, foster economic development, and protect the most vulnerable by promoting health equity. This can be done by making conscious choices as consumers, commuters and employees or employers. All these actions will put pressure on policy makers and local governments to meet the demands and lifestyle of their citizens and will improve the health of the planet, short and long term.

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