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The latest in our series on the cities of tomorrow explores how urban planning can keep citizens healthy and active.

This article is part of our Future Cities Series where our experts explore the pressures facing our cities in the post-Covid era and map out the key issues and industry themes in re-thinking urban life.

Our cities of the future should be, above all else, about the citizens – the women, men and children – living and working in our urban centres. All over the world, cities continue to experience varying levels of lockdown due to the global pandemic, which in many cases has left citizens feeling “locked-in”. This significant decrease in physical activity is becoming more of a major health concern in its own right distinct from the impact of Covid-19 itself.

Physical activity strengthens the immune system, thus contributing to the prevention of communicable diseases, and is important to prevent non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular dieseases. It also plays an important role in bringing people together, and empowering them to make healthy lifestyle choices. Sport and exercise is especially important for children’s personal development, to learn how to use (and limit) their power, to move forward in the world, and for their mental health and cognitive development.

It is no surprise that The United Nations’ recognises sport as an important enabler in realising their sustainable development goals, having already played a vital role in enhancing social progress and empowerment of woman, young people, individuals and communities to date. But modern urban life narrows the space for physical activity – daily mobility is decreasing and a sedentary lifestyle even for children prevails. TV consumes, social media and e-games take over, isolating individuals while playing outside together loses attraction.

The health consequences of sedentary lifestyles continues to gain attention around the world with a number of leading organisations advocating for action against inactivity. In 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO), in collaboration with the European Union, published the report “Towards more physical activity: Transforming public spaces to promote physical activity” to encourage a “planning for people” approach when designing public spaces. Similarly, city municipalities have started to introduce new programs designed to inspire physical activity such as the Port Moresby Active City Development Programme in Papua New Guinea. This program was introduced not only to combat widespread lack of physical exercise due to the absence of fitness or sporting facilities for residents to use, but to ensure disadvantaged communities were also empowered to live positively in a clean, peaceful, safe and healthy environment.

The pandemic has shown us that physical activity is even more crucial to these disadvantaged communities who have suffered from higher rates of infections and mortality. While many city parks have been crowded with runners during lockdown, inhabitants of dense and highly populated housing with no access to green urban spaces have been completely deprived of physical activity. The pandemic has emphasised these negative impacts especially with children missing school, which is often the only gateway they have to sport and physical activity.

With the lack of physical activity already a global issue before the pandemic, cities all over the world must put physical activity high on the agenda for recovery. We have seen progress in this space already this year, with 41 well-known organisations, professional societies and sports associations committing to the Hamburg Declaration – a global alliance for the promotion of physical activity – at the Sports Medicine Health Summit in April.

"Investing in physical activity has never been more relevant to prevent, cure, and support the crisis recovery in our communities and build their resilience and long-term well-being." – The Hamburg Declaration, 21 April 2021


Key contacts

Sylvia Schenk photo

Sylvia Schenk

Consultant, Germany

Sylvia Schenk