Sustainable Cities: How Healthy Environments Around Schools Protect Our Children, Too | Health passes through neighborhoods
Let’s imagine that we are children again, that we are returning to childhood. And this time, Tinkerbell and Peter Pan, instead of taking us to Neverland, will help us build the dream environment in our neighborhood, in our city.
And in this dream neighborhood, toddlers and teenagers will be able to bike or walk with their classmates to school and institute. They will be able to calmly eat wonderful, tasty, healthy and sustainable meals, and the highlight of the week will be to spend Friday or Saturday afternoon in the park, where they can play sports non-stop, climb trees, play hide and seek. looking for or whatever happens to them
This can be the dream environment of children and adolescents. And it is not far from what many scientific studies show in urban environments that protect and promote their health, the health of children and adolescents regardless of gender, country of origin or socioeconomic level of their families.
I will then describe examples of high-level and scientifically rigorous research conducted in diverse and diverse cities that analyze transport and pollution, urban food and green space use in relation to child and adolescent health.
Road traffic is directly related to pollution levels and noise levels around our schools, altering students’ cognitive development and attention span. A study of 3,500 children in Rotterdam showed how exposure to air pollutants in the womb and during the first eight years of life alters the structural connectivity of the brain in these children, which is linked to various developmental pathologies.
Spain is one of the countries in Europe where the rates of overweight and obesity among minors are higher. In Madrid, we conducted a detailed survey of the surroundings of more than 1,300 education centers in the city and analyzed the number of establishments with unhealthy food or drinks within 400 meters of the centers, less than a 5-minute walk. The results were more than telling: 95% of schools in Madrid had a place within a stone’s throw where they could buy industrial sweets or sweetened drinks, the average center had 17 stores of this type nearby, and schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods had up to one 62% more shops around than in average neighborhoods.
A study conducted in more than a thousand cities in 31 countries by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that 43,000 deaths per year could be prevented if the WHO recommendations for access to green spaces were followed: a distance of no more than 300 meters from any address.
When our interest is focused on health during adolescence, then the urban environment, its use, becomes even more complex because of the wider use of the city that they make. And in addition to pollution, noise or food, we need to include alcohol and tobacco consumption in surveys. And it turns out that the industry knows a lot more about them than we, the families, the researchers and the politicians. And the powerful alcohol and tobacco industries collect all this information because they anticipate potential long-term sales and profits.
A study of more than a thousand cities estimated that 43,000 deaths a year could be prevented if WHO recommendations were followed
The urban and social changes we need in our cities will not come exclusively through research and scientific evidence. Those of us who are dedicated to public health research would be very naive to think that our research is the only lever we have for change. In fact, social movements calling for the improvement of the urban environment around schools are many, varied and very strong. The School Riot movement has mobilized hundreds of schools and thousands of students and families in Barcelona and Madrid to demand pacification and a drastic reduction in motorized traffic in their neighborhoods. As has happened in many cities around the world, change will come if citizens, researchers, politicians and health professionals actively participate in common strategies that promote better health in cities.
What can we do? Where do we start to make our cities healthier and healthier for children and young people?
A good start is transport in our cities. Walking, cycling and using public transport would help us drastically reduce gas emissions while increasing our levels of physical activity.
A revolution at the table
Another important point is to understand food in cities within the concept of complex food systems, which brings together a perspective not only of health, but also of social and environmental sustainability, from food production to its distribution and consumption. The school feeding systems of our children and adolescents offer promising spaces for improving their diet and health with a special emphasis on the sustainability of food production, distribution, preparation and processing.
Schools can become catalysts for systemic and multifaceted change. Children and youth spend most of their days in their educational centers, which makes them not only a place for learning, but also for eating and socializing. The European School Food For Change project combines all these elements to have a long-term positive impact on school canteens in Europe.
Finally, it is essential to emphasize that schools and education centers need nearby green spaces that are appropriately designed and sized so that children can spend hours without screens while being physically active.
At this point in our history, with all the accumulated scientific knowledge about health and climate change, improving the urban environment of our educational centers is without a doubt one of the best ways to improve the well-being of our cities, that of our children and adolescents. and certainly that of our planet.
Health passes through neighborhoods This is a section that explains in a simple and friendly tone the concepts and research advances in urban health, a necessarily interdisciplinary area of public health. Urban Health research aims to improve our cities to improve the health of the millions of people who inhabit the complex and unequal cities that characterize life on our planet today.
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