Analysis: here are six things we learned from Cork's Healthy Cities project about what needs to be done

By Monica O'Mullane and Denise Cahill, UCC

Our health is determined more by the context in which we are born, grow and live than the lifestyle choices we make in our lifetime Economic, social, developmental and political systems have a great impact on health. Where we are born, our family circumstances, the community in which we develop and the educational and employment opportunities available to us influence our health.

Rates of illness and premature death are significantly higher amongst the poorest and most excluded groups in our cities. Indeed, last year's Report of the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) Ireland starkly reminds us that health inequalities (how the poor and marginalised are more likely to live and work in environments harmful to health and have less access to services and amenities) have significantly worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic, because of the pre-existing structural inequities.

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From RTÉ Archives, George Devlin reports for RTÉ News in 1989 about how parts of Dublin are health black spots. Dublin was among 27 major population centres in Europe participating in the Healthy Cities Project.

Good city development planning can be the catalyst for forging healthy, sociable, sustainable and happier communities. Embedding contextualised Health Impact Assessments as an integrated part of this planning is crucial for the future of informed healthier public policies in Ireland.

The Cork Healthy Cities project is one that "continually creates and improves its physical and social environments and expands the community resources to enable people to mutually support each other". A World Health Organisation Healthy City since 2012, Cork has endeavoured to build partnerships across the spectrum of local authority, academia, health and community sectors to reinforce the mantra that health is everybody’s business. Cork is about to enter Phase VI of the European WHO Healthy Cities framework, with a commitment to the Copenhagen Consensus of happier and healthier cities for all.

Here are six things we've learned from the project so far

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From TEDxUCC, Denise Cahill talks about the Cork Healthy Cities project

(1) Foster a genuine spirit of partnership

Genuine partnership has meant sitting down with partners across the agencies we engage with and discussing in an open way the health priorities at the heart of communities. What has been crucial to the Project's continued work is continuous open dialogue and keeping the work approach people-centred, so that collaboration embodies genuine ownership. The Cork Food Policy Council, for example, exemplifies a genuine partnership of all stakeholders in the food system in Cork and is focused on a sustainable and healthy food system while balancing the perspectives of all at the table.

(2) Be open to emerging issues

This may seem obvious, but it's at the heart of what we do in Cork Healthy Cities. Collaborating with Cork City Council, Cork Local Sports Partnership and Lets Grow Together Cork, we have developed a playful approach to business in the city through a EU-funded Playful Paradigm project. Playful Placemaking events have been adopted across the city in response to our new way of living. Innovation is at the heart of all that we do and courage to try something new is the key ingredient for responsive action.

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From Cork Healthy Cities, how to transform a city into a playful city

(3) Bring politicians onboard

As already mentioned, Cork is about to enter Phase VI of the European WHO Healthy Cities framework, with a commitment the Copenhagen Consensus of happier and healthier cities for all. The Copenhagen Consensus outlines a framework of 6 Ps for fostering health and well-being through governance, empowerment and PARTICIPATION, creating urban PLACES for equity and community PROSPERITY, and investing in PEOPLE for a PEACEFUL PLANET. Cllr Tony Fitzgerald, political representative on the CHC steering group has guided the political course in Cork, representing Ireland at WHO Europe Healthy Cities and leading this political vision group to the signing of the Copenhagen Consensus during his Lord Mayorship in 2017.

(4) Make health everybody’s business

Cork has proactively led the charge for promoting health as a key objective of city planning by seeking to develop an environment for positive health for all citizens in the day-to-day business of all. Since the designation of Cork by the W.H.O., Cork City Council has supported communities to cultivate green spaces for food growing, developed parklets across the city centre and developed Age Friendly actions for walkability and social inclusion across the city.

(5) Build on an appetite for change

Influencing the social determinants of health is challenging at local level. Cork has sought to advocate for health action at policy level with the development of the Cork City Profile. The Profile is unique in its collaboration with many stakeholders across the city, keen to contribute to the story of the underlying causes of health and ill health across the city while focussing the lens of the analysis on the social determinants. The City Profile has become an advocacy tool for change at local and national level and is deemed a best practice approach to highlighting health inequalities across communities at city level.

(6) Put health and environment in all policies

In line with the Copenhagen Consensus, the city has embraced the connection between climate action and health promotion, adopting actions that respond to both. The Transport and Mobility Forum has developed actions to promote sustainable and healthy transport options in the city, while the Food Policy Council has supported sustainable and healthy food practices in the city. The Green Spaces for Health have supported communities to take ownership of green spaces for respite from urban stresses, Tai Chi classes and food growing while building greater opportunities for enhanced biodiversity.

The project will celebrate ten years of WHO designation in 2022 and a book Celebrating Ten Years of Cork Healthy Cities will be published to mark this occasion.

Dr Monica O'Mullane is an EC funded Marie Sklodowska-Curie research fellow at the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century at UCC. Denise Cahill is the Healthy Cities co-ordinator in Cork.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ