In the same week Resilience Brokers was introduced to the world we took to the road to take part in two exciting events promoting urban health and wellbeing in London and Beirut. With a particular focus on the need to take a systems approach that puts human health and wellbeing at the heart of the city planning and development processes. This will continue to be a central theme as we take open source collaborative systems approaches to 200 city regions globally over the next five years, to achieve our mission:

“To support a rapid transition to resilient development paths in all economies and regions to build a better future for people everywhere, leaving no one behind.” — Resilience Brokers

This blog brings threads together from these significant events, I hope you enjoy the read, and welcome your comments.

From the illustrious surroundings of the institute of Physicians –award winning complex on Regent’s Park, London– home to the inaugural healthy city design conference, to the hot and traffic laden streets of Beirut, where the impressive Beirut Arab University hosted our joint workshop: ‘Systems Approaches for Enhancing Urban Health and Wellbeing’. The topic moved beyond good conversations, to transformative action, which sums up what Resilient Brokers are all about.

Speakers at the London summit Sir Andy Haines and Dr Montira Pongsiri, alongside our own Peter Head and others, co-authored the seminal Lancet Commission on Planetary Health. A report which draws an uncomfortable conclusion: all of the global human health gains made over the past several decades could be reversed if our collective environmental impacts on nature’s life-support systems are not decisively tackled.

“we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present” — Lancet Commission report

A timely reminder of the opportunity for addressing both human health and climate change issues through the agency of city regions came from Dr David Pencheon, of the UK’s National Health Service. David is a huge advocate for systems approaches and sees cities as a critical entry point for the future of human health. Illustrating the intimate relationship between city design and function and our exposure to adverse health effects, he cited the tragic tale of the 1995 Chicago heatwave killing over 700 residents as told by Klinenberg. The ‘social autopsy’ revealing that governance structures within the city had played a role in making the disaster so much worse than it should have been.

Looking further back, the urban planning and health professions went indeed hand in glove as cities expanded rapidly. Urbanisation made possible, for instance, through the invention of epidemiology that led to sanitation and clean water. But then urban and health drifted apart into their silos: health tackling instead chronic and degenerative illnesses caused, for example, by smoking and city planners working on technological challenges of transport and construction.

There are, however, plenty of examples today where the two disciplines are still working closely. Including actions to reduce the health impacts of air pollution from traffic through to city and transport system designs, to encourage active movement and reduce obesity, cardiovascular and respiratory problems. The evidence linking good city design to health benefits is clear. Public Health England have produced a systematic review of the evidence base on Spatial planning for Health, showing particularly strong influences from good neighbourhood, housing and transport design as well as natural environments. As David noted, using systems thinking and actions such as these, we can ensure that we leave not only an infrastructural legacy for our cities, but a human and cultural one too.

Following these opening discussions, I joined Montira, Robin Stott –our advisory board expert on health– and others to present resilience.io. With examples of how systems-based approaches and integrated tools and strategies can be used to ensure that complex environmental, social and economic interlinkages are sustainably managed for urban health and wellbeing –from planetary, to city, to human scales. I ended my talk inviting participants to join the Resilience Brokers movement, in whatever role or capacity, to help us design, finance and implement new systems level solutions. I hope you will recognise some of the challenges we seek to address and be inspired to visit – Resilience Brokers.

resilience.io diagram — City, Planet, People

Fast forward to Beirut, and the rubber begins to hit the road. Hosted by Beirut Arab University (BAU) and the leadership of professor Ibtihal El Bastawissi –who convened Deans from 4 major university departments– we joined the International Council for Science’s (ICSU) Urban Health and Wellbeing team. Together, we discussed the detail of a trans-disciplinary effort to establish a new research and city demonstrator activity.

Beirut –situated between the mountains of Lebanon and the Mediterranean– was once known as ‘the Paris of the Middle East’. But, it has since been heavily damaged by internal fighting and currently hosting a much larger population –with refugees seeking safety from the crisis in neighbouring Syria–resulting in unique urban development challenges. Lebanon is 80% urbanised with 10km^2 of green areas being consumed to urbanisation every year. In Beirut, 85% of journeys are made by car, with vehicles accounting for 90% of air pollution and chronic congestion being a regular occurrence. At the same time, commercial developments are placing huge pressure on what remains left of open green spaces. A potent combination which is expected to lead to a four degrees increase in urban heat island effect, leading to unprecedented heat stress on the population. It is perhaps for these reasons that green space and walkability was given the highest priority for resilient city developments at an event led by Beirut Arab University last April

On the green and shady campus of BAU, we work collaboratively with ICSU and our hosts to develop a set of systems approaches, tools and a roadmap of activities to help achieve both: an internationally renowned centre and a pipeline of investments to build solutions to these challenges.

Beirut Gouraud

The Beirut Municipality recognises that wellbeing, healthcare and greening the streets is a high priority and are working on all fronts –including a 7,000 street tree planting programme. Dr Fadi Haman of the Beirut Disaster Risk Management Centre advocates a collaborative approach to assessing urban risk and a scientific approach to allocating funds. He cited examples from all over the world where strong policy implementation had led to greater resilience over time. Tony Sfeir, the Chief Resilience Officer of Byblos –just up the coast from Beirut– felt that Lebanese civil society growing in strength is very positive. Meaning that politicians are more aware of public opinion when presiding over controversial development projects –such as on remaining urban green spaces, or the urban coast.

There is great hope in Beirut of re-emerging as a regional centre for banking, the knowledge economy, tourism and more. The BAU led event brought world leading health and systems experts together with motivation and enthusiasm and a strong sense of the great strides ahead, regionally and globally, that are now becoming possible.

In concluding remarks, our host, professor Ibithal El Bastawissi and professor Franz Gatzweiler (ICSU), conveyed that nowhere has a systems approach to urban health and wellbeing been taken so far as it has done here in Beirut. With BAU and the group looking forward to accelerate this work, to improve Beirut and to become global leaders in this area.

An intense, and typical week in the life of a Resilience Broker. A huge step forward with many practical steps and the leadership and energy to effect a transformative change towards a healthier urban environment.

Our fabulous team took this opportunity to introduce a Beirut Resilience Brokers logo, influenced by Kufic script, Maze like streets and the Mediterranean –a very nice touch to help cement our partnership.

Urban health and wellbeing is well within the reach of every city on the planet. That is if we take a collaborative, systems approach to solving the complex challenges. Resilience Brokers is gearing up to scale these approaches to 200 city regions globally over the next five years so, do get in touch.

#WeAreResilienceBrokers

As a postscript, we have also been leading a project to use text messaging to encourage over 50’s to travel to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. We support people to overcome social and digital isolation and reap the health benefits. This and other initiatives connected to the Future Cities Catapult Capstone project will be showcased at the Urban Innovation Centre on the 16th November, maybe see you there!