• Addressing the challenge of unhealthy lifestyles including access to improved nutrition and sanitation options is a complex problem, especially in cities.
  • City governments cannot tackle the challenge alone, and need unified participation of business, non-profits and academia to create sustainable solutions to these challenges.
  • Our partnerships in three pilot cities – Austin and Jersey City in the US and Mumbai in India illustrate innovative collective action which can be replicated and scaled up in other cities.

More than 55% of the global population now live in cities and this percentage is expected to rise to 68% by 2050 according to the United Nations. However, cities often struggle when it comes to ensuring the physical and mental wellbeing of their citizens – where they live, work, shop and play. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the need to empower people – preventatively – to lead healthy lives in urban centres, as non-communicable diseases (such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension) have risen fastest in cities.

As communities recover, there is renewed commitment to improving health and wellbeing by addressing underlying lifestyle and environmental conditions. City governments cannot solve this challenge alone and need leadership from business, civil society and academia. We believe that with a collaborative approach, cities have the potential to empower citizens to achieve an improved state of physical and mental wellbeing through positive lifestyle choices in their local environments.

Given this context, and to build a resilient future for all stakeholders, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Consumption Platform aims to forge responsible models of consumption that are equitable, promote societal wellbeing and protect the planet. Improving consumer wellbeing is a key transformation goal of the platform and its Healthy Cities and Communities initiative is a flagship effort driving public-private action in partner cities for better health and wellbeing outcomes of citizens who are also consumers.

The Healthy Cities and Communities Playbook, published in collaboration with the Oliver Wyman Forum, found that places as diverse as Jersey City and Austin in the US, and Mumbai in India, can develop effective healthy living programmes by creating public-private partnerships which focus on the underlying salient dimensions of physical and mental wellbeing such as nutrition, sanitation, and environmental and social wellbeing.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to encourage healthy living in cities?

It can be tough to stay healthy when living in a big city. The Forum is responding through its Healthy Cities and Communities initiative by working to create innovative urban partnerships, which are helping residents find a renewed focus on their physical and mental health.

In 2020, the project continued to expand to new locations and has effectively helped communities impacted by COVID-19. Our work is continuing with concrete actions in 2021 where best practices and learnings from all partner cities will be shared, allowing other cities to replicate and scale.

In Jersey City, USA the Healthy Cities and Communities initiative is working with AeroFarms to deliver locally sourced vertically farmed greens to people in need. The initiative is also helping homeless people who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

In Mumbai, India (home to more than 20 million people) the initiative is working with the local startup community and engaging them on multiple sanitation challenges.

Learn more and find out how to join the initiative in our impact story.

Through our partnership with these three cities over the last two years, we found that city governments – mayors, public health departments, city administrators – need effective partnerships with stakeholders to support citizens’ wellbeing efforts.

The private sector, for instance, has the opportunity to bring in its stakeholder capitalism mindset to such partnerships. By aligning commercial objectives with positive societal outcomes, organizations can match their mission-oriented goals with the needs of healthy city partnerships. Private-sector organizations can bring in their capabilities – such as innovation, research, financial and human resources – to complement and amplify the existing effort of cities.

Similarly non-profits, especially those that work closely with local communities, are ideally placed to identify, and communicate community needs to the broader set of partners and are enabled to deliver solutions in the last mile, where relationships are vital.

This combined effort from public-private partnerships has the potential to create very strong health and wellbeing outcomes for citizens.

Our pilot efforts in partner cities which are discussed below, offer viable programmes on improving access to better nutrition, sanitation and other individual choices. These can be replicated and scaled across neighborhoods in cities, as well as across other cities around the world trying to solve similar challenges.

Access to better nutrition: partnerships with private sector

Partnership with the private sector has been effectively realized in our first partner city, Jersey City, New Jersey in the US – under the leadership of Mayor Steven Fulop and the Department of Health and Human Services. With more than 260,000 people within the metro New York City region, Jersey City is enhancing the physical and mental wellbeing of its residents through improved access to better nutrition options.

One notable private sector collaboration is with the startup AeroFarms, a pioneer tech start-up in urban farming. This first of its kind relationship in the US is implementing municipally driven vertical farm installations to provide better nutrition in the city with regular access to fresh, locally grown greens as a vehicle to improve individual food choices. The programme currently envisions vertical farms to be located at 10 key sites in the city and expects to deliver approximately 19,000 pounds of fresh produce to residents every year, free of charge.

Social wellbeing: importance of non-profits in grassroot efforts

Another notable example demonstrates how convening organizations and alliances can help bring together disparate parties with shared objectives. The Austin Healthcare Council, is a non-profit coalition established to grow the city’s reputation as a health and wellbeing hub for its residents. The group is now working with the office of Mayor Steve Adler and the city’s public health department to address early years interventions and life skills enhancement for the city’s most vulnerable populations.

One of the first collaborations is with the United Way Family Connects programme, where a community health and wellbeing worker visits households with newborns in the first three weeks after birth to ensure that every baby gets a healthy start in life. The programme is holistic and connects infant and parental health with key aspects of wellbeing such as good nutrition, sleep, social connectedness, employment, and income. In 2020 alone, 800 families were reached, and expansion is planned in 2021.

The United Way Family Connects programme: visits to households with newborns in the first three weeks after birth.
Image: Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Hygiene and sanitation: maximizing reach and impact

In Mumbai, India, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai has engaged with the India chapter of the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC) – a membership driven organization – to help improve basic sanitation services.

One such effort is with coalition member Hindustan Unilever. Through the Suvidha initiative, Hindustan Unilever is developing affordable, long-term WASH facilities in the city’s largest informal settlements to address severe local shortcomings in hygiene and sanitation. Five Suvidha centres have been developed since the launch of the initiative, with each centre offering toilets, purified drinking water, washing machines and showers for holders of affordable monthly or single use passes. The centres currently serve approximately 13,000 people every day, and there is opportunity to scale the initiative to more informal settlements.

Suvidha Centres: offering toilets, purified drinking water, washing machines and showers.
Image: Unilever

Cross-border innovation and inspiration

Solving critical healthy living issues isn’t easy. When possible, it is important look to other cities for inspiration, advice, and useful technology and not be distracted by differences in size, wealth, and heterogeneity. Facilitated by our Healthy Cities and Communities efforts, Jersey City in the US, for instance, adapted the idea of “health buses” from the concept of “Ti” bus in the city of Pune in India.

In India, the buses were targeted towards women to offer safe and sanitary access to public toilets, with additional health services in the buses. Learning from that model, in Jersey City the vehicles have been designed to offer a range of services to the city’s homeless and poorest residents, including showers, screenings, counselling, and laundry. Long term, Jersey City administrators hope to connect clients with appropriate housing and other agencies.

In conclusion, we believe all cities have the opportunity to foster holistic health and wellbeing through local collaboration, regardless of their particular circumstances. Cities of all sizes and stages of development, from all parts of the world, cities of varying levels of economic, political, and cultural significance – all have the opportunity to continue to engage their citizens in healthy living.

Looking to the future, our Healthy Cities and Communities initiative aims to achieve scale by establishing a City Peer Network united by a shared commitment to fostering healthy living through partnerships. Bringing business, NGOs, and academic experts to cities, and also connecting citizen leaders we envision city stakeholders collaborating with a global community to cultivate innovative ideas that can be activated, replicated, and scaled across diverse cities of the world.