The Danish capital ranks high on the list of the world’s healthiest and happiest cities. With obesity and depression on the rise worldwide, here are its lessons for how to combat them culturally
Sarah BoseleySun 11 Feb 2018 16.10 GMT
Maybe it’s the Viking heritage. There is an icy open-air pool in the waters of Copenhagen’s harbour, and although it is mid-winter Danes still jump in every day. On the front cover of the city’s health plan, a lean older man is pictured climbing out, dripping, his mouth open in a shout that could be horror or pleasure. “Enjoy life, Copenhageners,” urges the caption.
It’s not every Copenhagener who wants to take strenuous exercise in cold water either for fun or to get fit. But the packed bike lanes of the Danish capital, even at this sometimes subzero time of year, are testimony to the success of a city that is aspiring to be one of the healthiest in the world. Copenhagen consistently sits at the very top of the UN’s happiness index and is one of the star performers in the Healthy Cities initiative of the World Health Organisation, which, almost unknown and unsung, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The initiative was the idea of a group of individuals inspired by the Alma Ata Declaration of 1978, which was about elevating the status of primary care and public health in a world where everybody equated healthcare with hospital treatment after you got ill.
Cities do, of course, spawn in response to the need for people to have roofs over their heads; somewhere to eat and sleep within striking distance of their job. Whether it’s the slums of Nairobi or the skyscrapers of Tokyo, the imperative has always been to pack in more people where their talents or labour are needed. Their health, closely related to the environment in which they live, has never really figured. Only recently have we realised the ills we are reaping.
Some of our cities have notorious food deserts, with acres of housing and only takeaways and small grocery stores selling tinned and packaged foods, sugary buns, sweets, crisps and colas. It is hard to get an apple, but not a burger or chips. Green lungs – parks and gardens – are a historic feature of London, but some cities are barely walkable because of the traffic fumes, while cycling is dangerous on roads shared with juggernauts.
Obesity and its related ills – heart disease, diabetes and cancer – have thrived in these cities. Only recently have we begun to realise that fundamental social and cultural change will be needed to alter their relentless upward trajectory. City mayors have the power to kickstart this, as Michael Bloomberg showed in his high-profile interventions while mayor of New York. He cut greenhouse gas emissions and planted trees, and although he lost in court when he tried to ban sales of super-sized super-sugary soft drinks in 2012, the attempt certainly got people talking.