Making cities, workplaces healthy for all

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What makes a healthy city, and can people, from political leaders and parents, help make their homes healthier?

At the 9th Global conference on health promotion, being held in Shanghai 21-24 November, there will be a particular focus on taking action to make our cities places that promote health.

Mayors clearly play a leading role here. Municipal leaders have the power to improve the lives and wellbeing of millions - if not - billions of people. Half of the world's population already live in urban areas, and this is expected to grow to around two-thirds by 2030.

The Shanghai conference, and its two major expected outcomes - the Shanghai Declaration and the Mayors Consensus - will serve as clarion calls to city leaders around the world that they have a fundamental role in promoting health for current and future generations.

Think global and act local

Enlightened, and emboldened, action on health in cities, is key to rescuing people from living in urban deathtraps, where exposure to a multitude of harms - from tobacco smoke and unsafe car driving, to polluted skies and waterways - are needlessly causing untold suffering and lumbering those very cities, and the wider national economies, with avoidable costs and weakened workforces.

All of us can play a part. At the World Health Organization, like many international multilateral agencies, we set technical guidance that advise mayors, ministers and many others on how to healthily, and sustainably, regulate and build their societies. But we can do more than just pronounce best practice - we must put policy into practice.

At WHO, we are constantly working to transform our own workplaces into healthier places to work. We have made our campuses smoke-free workplaces, in line with the articles of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the first international legally binding treated negotiated under the auspices of the Organization.

Although it seems obvious today to act against a product that kills 6 million people worldwide every year, the step to make WHO smoke-free sent a loud message when it was implemented that authorities - whether they by WHO management, or mayors and ministers - have the ability, and the obligation, to prevent people being exposed to risks that can impact on their health.

Another measure has been to promote physical activity at the work place, including through our Step Up campaign, which encourages people to take the stairs to meetings and offices rather than using elevators. This simple initiative, where sticker-lined stairs carry messages like encouraging to "Take one more step, you are nearly there" can make a real difference to people's lives and health.

WHO Walking the Talk

These efforts fall under the banner of WHO's Walk the Talk initiative - a staff-led movement to make the Organization a healthier place to work. I believe that the workplace is more than just a place where we meet, plan and support governments to move their health agendas forward. It's a place where we spend much of our lives, where we develop friendships and where we invest both emotional and intellectual energy. Indeed, we could regard our offices as not just as workplace but as a kind of "mini-city".

In another effort to have WHO walk its own talk, we marked World Obesity Day by removing sugary drinks from all points of sale on the headquarters campus. The move was in line with new WHO recommendations to keep sugar intake below 10% of total energy needs, and reduce it to less than 5% for additional health benefits.

As we know, sugary drinks offer little, or no, nutritional benefit, and are a leading driver in the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.

At the Shanghai health promotion conference delegates will discuss taking steps like these, and many more, to make it easier for people to live healthier lives, and for cities to develop sustainably. Community leaders, be they mayors or workplace managers, all have a vital role to play.