Nélida Quintero is an environmental psychologist, licensed architect, and American Psychological Association NGO Representative at the United Nations. In the first of a series for Sanity and Urbanity, she explains the upcoming UN Habitat III process and where mental health fits in.
Why the UN is so interested in cities
People are moving to cities in ever-increasing numbers around the world. Cities provide opportunities for work, and access to better services and education. Higher population densities attract greater investment, so resources become more centralized. While years ago, decentralization and distributed workforces and services seemed to be a growing trend in developed countries, the conversation on human settlements globally has been recently centered more on mega-cities and urbanization, as increasing numbers of people move into cities. By 2050, 66% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas, according to the United Nation’s’ World Urbanization Prospects Highlights (2014).
Cities benefit from the concentration of human labor and talent and present a more efficient way to invest capital, given that it may be more efficient to direct financial resources to a smaller number of large hospitals, work centers or schools to serve many than to distribute such resources to multiple smaller hospitals, work centers and schools distributed in lower concentration settlements, for instance. Thus, regional development that emphasizes investment in smaller towns or villages may be more difficult to finance for many countries. The greater availability of jobs, health services and educational opportunities attract people from areas where such services and opportunities are scarce, such as smaller towns and rural areas. Though around half of urban dwellers currently live in cities of 500,000 inhabitants or less, by 2030, there will be 41 mega-cities with more than 10 million inhabitants, according to the United Nations’ projections.
There are many positive aspects to city living that support physical and mental well-being and health, such a greater availability of resources and opportunities, but as cities grow and the demands of the available resources increases, conditions develop that might have an uneven negative impact on urban populations. Planning and designing cities that grow very rapidly can be challenging. Overcrowding and uneven accessibility to resources, among other issues, can lead to environments that can undermine well-being and health.
The UN is currently talking Habitat III - but where did it come from? What were Habitat I and II?
This continually accelerating process of migration into cities and towns and increase in urban populations, was already recognized in the 70’s by the international community. Given this rapid process of unplanned urbanization, which was particularly noticeable in developing countries, the need for sustainable urbanization approaches became clear, which prompted the United Nations General Assembly to convene the first Habitat conference in Vancouver in 1976. At this conference, the creation of the United Center for Human Settlements (UNCHS-Habitat), now the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) was proposed. The Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, Habitat II, took place in Istanbul, Turkey in 1996.
So when is Habitat III and what will happen?
The Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III, will be held in Quito, Ecuador from October 17th to October 20th. At this meeting, UN countries will agree on a New Urban Agenda, based on the Habitat Agenda developed in Istanbul in 1996. The New Urban Agenda will serve to guide the process of urbanization worldwide, informed by a long preparatory process. As part of this process, experts from around the world have drafted 22 issue papers and recommendations from 10 policy units, currently accessible for review on the Habitat III website.
Each issue paper looks at researched topics related to the urban environment, underlining conditions that may need particular attention and guide policy recommendations developed by the Habitat III Policy Units. In turn the Policy Units have drafted ten policy papers that will inform the development of the New Urban Agenda to be completed and reviewed in Quito. The Policy Units are made up of 20 experts each, representing different geographic areas and constituencies. These experts were nominated by Member States and stakeholders and appointed by the Secretary General of the Conference, in consultation with the Bureau of the Preparatory Committee for Habitat III. The objectives of the Policy Units are to explore research and highlight expertise and findings on specific themes, and draft policy recommendations relevant to these themes that address approaches toward sustainable urban development.
The six areas addressed by the 22 Issue Papers are focused on:
The ten Policy Papers are:
Member states and other stakeholders involved in the process continue to provide comments and input on these papers.
Where does mental health and wellbeing fit into the Habitat III papers?
While the importance of accessibility to health services, the interaction of health and the environment, and the beneficial impacts on health of sustainable approaches feature prominently in the Issue and Policy Papers, terms such as mental health or mental illness, psychological health or well-being are not used as frequently - though mental health and well-being are addressed in connection to urban conditions and stressors, such as inadequate urban infrastructure and income inequality. The Issue Paper on Public Space, for instance, refers to the research connecting green space to mental health and stresses the need for inclusive, connected, safe, and accessible public spaces. The importance of providing, as well as maintaining, green public spaces to enhance health is also highlighted in the Urban Spatial Strategies: Land Market and Segregation Policy Paper. The Inclusive Cities Issue Paper recommends developing strategies that enhance well-being for older persons and that relate to healthcare accessibility and safety, financial security, and age-friendly features in community life and entertainment.
Some of the research on the interaction of physical places and mental well-being is mentioned in the Housing Policies Policy Paper. In the notes, it refers to a paper entitled Housing, Health and Happiness by Cattaneo. In Cattaneo’s paper, improvement of housing conditions through the replacement of dirt floors with cement floors in Mexico, was correlated not only to fewer infections, but also to lower rates of depression and perceived stress, as well improvements in cognitive development and increased satisfaction with housing and quality of life, underlining the impact the physical characteristics of housing can have on health and well-being.
So what happens now?
The first draft or Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda is expected to be completed in May, 2016 by the Habitat III Bureau and the Secretariat, ahead of the conference in Quito. In the meantime, the preparatory process involves various events and regional meetings around the world.
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