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Belfast Healthy Cities

Our vision is to be a leader in creating
a healthy, equitable and sustainable city

Healthy Cities 21st Century

Helping Belfast to emerge from COVID-19 as an Active and Healthy City

Joan Devlin, Chief Executive, Belfast Healthy Cities

As a member of the World Health Organization European Healthy Cities Network, over the last 32 years Belfast Healthy Cities has worked in partnership with statutory and voluntary organisations to make Belfast a more healthy, equitable and sustainable city. An important part of that role has been the connectivity with the network of healthy cities across Europe and the world. Sharing experience and best practice from cities across the network allows for health and wellbeing policy to be developed for better health outcomes, compared and discussed with our neighbours far and wide.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already ushered in new working practices, as people get to grips with working from home, connecting with colleagues and clients through video conference calls in place of face to face meetings. For the WHO Healthy Cities Network, the practice of webinars is something we have been using for some time as a means of gathering representatives from more than 100 cities in the network together. These fortnightly calls have, unsurprisingly, concentrated on the Coronavirus crisis in recent times.

Our participation in them means that Belfast has direct access to the experiences and learning of neighbouring countries and experts from across Europe, as we all plot a course through Covid-19 and the restrictions of lockdown. It is insightful to hear first-hand from the policy makers and practitioners in other parts of Europe.

So much of public health policy is about impacting on people’s behaviour in a positive way. For many years, we all have heard the calls to reduce the reliance on cars, and encouragement to exercise more. Cycling and walking advocates have pointed to examples, such as the Netherlands, where city infrastructure changes have led to wholesale changes in how the citizens move around, bringing about health and wellbeing improvements. 

What we are now seeing right across Europe, is public policy changing to seize a rare opportunity to adapt city infrastructure. COVID-19 has impacted on all of us, and it has forced a change in our daily commute and how we exercise. While we hear talk about how things will not go back to normal or that we must adjust to a ‘new normal’, steps are already being taken to make adjustments to our cities, as we begin to emerge from lockdown. 

In Bonn, Germany, large parts of the city are being pedestrianised, which will give additional space not just for walking and cycling, but also for restaurants and cafes to re-open with social distancing space. Similarly, Utrecht in the Netherlands, as city with an already extensive cycling infrastructure, is creating more ‘terracing’ areas by removing car access and parking, which will allow more space for bikes, walkers and seating. The city is also allowing for more food trucks, which helps the many cafes and restaurants and will encourage more walking and cycling as the city eases restrictions. 

Thankfully, Belfast isn’t being left behind, and the announcement by the Minister for Infrastructure on pedestrianisation and pathway widening for cycling and walking is exactly the sort of positive step that our city needs right now. Sometimes such changes are seen as a disruption to the normal, but given the substantial changes we’ve all had to make in the last few months, perhaps this time we can embrace the freedom this changes will bring as we move around the city.

It is refreshing to see such policy being rolled out in what seems to be a quick time frame, though in reality Belfast Healthy Cities has been working with partner agencies across Government for many years to further the ideas and policies which will help deliver a more sustainable city. This has included working with schools on Child Friendly Places and community groups on our Walkability studies.

There is no automatic right or wrong answer or solution to the coronavirus crisis and the global and local issues it presents to practitioners, policy makers and politicians. We are all facing this new problem as one, with no set of proven instructions. That makes it more important than ever to share experience and knowledge with each other, using established networks and expertise.

As we begin to work through the stages of easement, there will be further adjustments to how we live and work. Will most people revert back to working from offices and factories, taking the same mode of transport at the same time each day? Will home working increase as we seek a more sustainable balance between the economy and community health and wellbeing? And how will these changes allow our city to change?

The discussions we have with each other as cities and regions are important for us all. Belfast, as a member of the WHO European Healthy Cities Network, will share our experience and seek to learn from other cities, keeping our own Department of Health, Public Health Agency, Council, Housing Executive and voluntary and community sector organisations, informed of outcomes from elsewhere. It is our intention and our hope that, by learning from others, we can more readily and equitably address and resolve the unprecedented problems created by Covid -19.

The problem presented by Covid-19 is new and global, and being part of a global network is important as we work out way through towards solutions and positive outcomes. They are likely to require new thinking too.