Sisse Marie Welling is the Mayor for Health and Care in the City of Copenhagen, Denmark. Author photo: © Philipe Davali
Copenhagen is known as one of the world’s greenest, healthiest, most livable and bike-friendly cities. Earlier this year the city also hosted a high-level WHO Summit on health as a political choice in the future of cities, further enhancing Copenhagen’s reputation.
However, not all of Copenhagen’s inhabitants have benefitted sufficiently from the city’s transformation into a green and sustainable hub. We struggle with a huge – perhaps surprisingly so when reflected against Denmark’s Nordic heritage – health gap in terms of social inequality. For example, the life expectancy in some urban areas of Copenhagen is seven years less than in the richer areas of the city. While we might live longer overall, we lack equal opportunities to health and more people live with illness.
A growing number of the city’s inhabitants have been diagnosed with diabetes and cancer, for example, and the number of people having comorbidity is also increasing. And it is not just physical health that is affected: recently published research shows that an alarming number of citizens struggle with mental health challenges caused by stress and depression. This is especially prevalent among young women, as the data shows that 40.5% of 16-24 year-old women living in the Copenhagen area suffer from elevated stress levels.
Not all of Copenhagen’s inhabitants have benefitted sufficiently from the city’s transformation into a green and sustainable hub
These figures are alarming, and no city should close their eyes from such phenomenon. In Copenhagen, we have set out to deal with the numerous challenges through an ambitious 10-year health policy that will run from 2015 to 2025. Titled ‘Enjoy life, Copenhagers!’, the policy plan establishes a common framework and direction to a healthier future. It focuses on various aspects of both physical and mental health, including issues such as alcohol use and physical inactivity. Our goal is to ensure that all Copenhageners have the physical and mental strength to live the lives they want to live, without disease and poor health that limit possibilities.
More concretely, the health policy is executed through six fundamental principles that convert to action plans targeted at the most pressing health challenges of Copenhagen. But it is more than just plans and targets: We put the citizens at the core of our actions by making it attractive to cycle, by serving nutritious lunches or by enabling educational institutions offer quit smoking programs. We take preventive measures and identify possible risks and need for special support early on. Simply put, we meet the citizens’ needs by putting their everyday lives and wishes at the centre of health policies.
Another rather unique aspect of the newly established health policy is the focus on environment, cooperation and partnerships. Copenhagen’s urban setting and environment ‒ similarly to other cities in Europe ‒ correlates to citizen health, as it is influenced by factors such as air pollution, noise levels and the number and accessibility of public parks and spaces for exercising. We have also established partnerships with volunteers, patient and sports associations, housing organisations, workplaces, research institutions and business, with the purpose of creating a framework that helps citizens make healthy choices every day, regardless of social background. Partnerships with business can be particularly fruitful and produce welfare technologies that will impact both quality of life and growth in Copenhagen.
Major cities in Europe can learn from Copenhagen’s example
And as we all know, health is not just physical: the city’s 10-year health policy equates mental health with physical health, and since 2015, activities promoting mental health and stress prevention have been integrated in the existing activities of our health promotion centres. Clinics and classes focusing on reducing stress by the means of meditation, body exercise, building social networks and conversations with healthcare professionals help Copenhagers dealing with stress-related issues. The positive results achieved by the centres have also led to the launch of online classes to better reach out to the citizens, especially the increasing number of young women suffering from stress and pressure.
While our focus and approach – involve citizens as much as possible – on health, and on mental health in particular, is just one example of successful health care policies, I believe that other major cities in Europe can learn from Copenhagen’s example. Equating physical and mental health, listening to citizens and their needs, establishing partnerships and improving urban environment can bridge the health gap between both rural and urban areas and between different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Fundamentally, having good health provides us with freedom and power to make our own choices in life. The city of Copenhagen wants to do its share to help its citizens achieve this.
IMAGE CREDIT: Tony Webester/ Flickr