On 13 February 2018, mayors and political leaders of cities and urban places in the European Region of the World Health Organisation (WHO) met in Copenhagen. They agreed on the Copenhagen Consensus of Mayors, which calls for ‘Healthier and Happier Cities for all: A transformative approach for safe, inclusive, sustainable and resilient societies’. The Consensus sets out six areas for action to improve the health and wellbeing of citizens: people, places, participation, prosperity, peace, and planet. It emphasises the need for cities to plan ‘appropriately designed change within the mobility system to ensure equitable and affordable access for all.’

As an enthusiastic user of public transport for many years, I found Copenhagen an ideal location to see the results of long-term planning for a healthy transport system. The city combines facilities for safe walking and biking with an integrated public transport system. Copenhagen aims to be the world’s best city for cyclists, with a target to increase from 41% of trips to work or education by bicycle in 2016, to 50% in 2025 (Copenhagen City of Cyclists Facts & Figures 2017).

Current transport use patterns in Belfast are very different. Over half of the workforce (52%) travel to work by car or van, 16% by public transport, and only 2% by bike. Belfast City Council has set a target to increase the use of sustainable transport by 15% over a 4-year period.

A network of expertise

The Copenhagen Consensus will guide the work of the WHO European Healthy Cities Network until 2030. Belfast joined the network in 1988 and currently hosts its secretariat. Membership allows us to learn from the experience of nearly 100 designated cities in 30 countries.

For example, we hosted a workshop to find out about the Three Urban Fabrics model of city planning which has been implemented by Kuopio in Finland. This model focuses on the design and relationships between the walking fabric, the transit fabric and the car fabric within a city. Representatives from Northern Ireland subsequently visited Kuopio to learn more. Belfast Councillors also visited Ljubljana in Slovenia to see the impact of their award-winning approaches to improving access for people with disabilities.

We invited the Mayor of Udine in Italy to Belfast to present work being carried out in his city to promote sustainable school mobility. Udine is committed to planning and designing for active living. The city has established Pedibus, to offer the opportunity for children to walk to school accompanied by volunteers recruited among parents, teachers, grandparents, retired people and students.

Sustainable transport initiatives in Belfast

Here at Belfast Healthy Cities, we use a range of approaches to strengthen the connections between health and transport within the city.

We participate in research and have developed a walkability assessment tool for healthy ageing. Queen’s University Belfast is currently taking part in ‘Is 20 plenty for health?’, an evaluation of the impact of 20mph zones in Belfast and Edinburgh.

We support and carry out initiatives to enable better planning decisions. In 2014, we participated in the development of the Belfast Active Travel Action Plan 2014-2020 by the Belfast Strategic Partnership. The potential benefits of implementing the plan were highlighted as healthier people, connected communities, a more vibrant city, and a stronger region.

We bring together organisations across sectors. In 2011, we established a travel group which developed a framework for health and social care organisations titled Travel Plans: Improving Health. A health equity assessment was carried out which identified a range of important determinants of health to consider when developing a travel plan.

In 2017, Belfast City Council – following extensive consultation – published The Belfast Agenda which sets out a new vision for the city in 2035. Improving transport within the city is identified as a key area to achieve this vision. The city is committed to promoting the development of sustainable transport and addressing the under-use of public transport. Areas of focus will include working in partnership to develop key transport infrastructure, finding a comprehensive solution to city centre parking, and supporting walking and cycling as sustainable modes of transport.

Our plans for the future

In September 2018, the first phase of the new Belfast Rapid Transport System will begin operation. New Glider vehicles will operate frequently to link East Belfast, West Belfast and the Titanic Quarter with the city centre. This major development is designed to improve connectivity and social interaction across the city, to encourage active travel choices, and to promote sustainability.

From 1 to 4 October 2018, Belfast will proudly host the WHO International Healthy Cities Conference to celebrate 30 years of the Healthy Cities movement: Changing Cities to Change the World. This global conference is open to everyone with an interest in health improvement. There will be opportunities to learn from the experience of cities in Europe and other WHO regions. It is certain that transport systems will feature as key drivers in how cities focus on improving the health and wellbeing of their citizens.

Dr David Stewart is chairman of Belfast Healthy Cities (@belfasthealthy), which is a member of the World Health Organization European Healthy Cities Network (@WHO_Europe_HCN)

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