With 72 per cent of Europe's population living in urban areas, our cities are at the heart of today's environmental and societal challenges and solutions. So, how then can we realise a healthy urban environment? This is a question we ask ourselves daily in Utrecht.
We are convinced that placing health at the heart of urban development strategy makes people happier, our environment healthier and our economy more sustainable.
Here at Utrecht region we have already established ourselves around the public health agenda: we are the healthiest city in the Netherlands, and have a solid economic basis related to health, given that around a quarter of Utrecht's working population is employed in the health sector.
We are also home to several leading international knowledge institutions on health. These factors offer a number of opportunities to enhance our economic basis and to even export it.
Utrecht is also the Netherlands' fastest growing region, situated at the crossroads of its domestic water, rail and road infrastructure.
Maintaining good accessibility, while improving air quality and reducing noise pollution, is nevertheless an ongoing challenge. Despite our healthy status, we continue to face the usual challenges and problems associated with a large city.
These are perhaps best reflected in the divergent levels of health among our residents; recent research revealed a twelve year gap in life expectancy between two adjacent neighbourhoods.
As a city, we therefore seek to collaborate with the regional knowledge institutes. We have set a joint knowledge agenda for healthy urbanisation, for example, so that we are not the sole beneficiary of the strategy. After all, we possess vast amounts of data both as a city and a region, yet lack the capacity to turn it into intelligence.
A prime example is our effort to improve air quality by implementing the first low emission zone in the Netherlands. Diesel cars and delivery vehicles manufactured before 2001 are now prohibited from entering Utrecht city centre.
Elsewhere, a study by the Utrecht based Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) revealed that soot emissions caused by this transport category have consequently declined by 30 per cent, while traffic volume has been reduced by just two per cent.
This approach is not a quick fix method, as it poses dilemmas and raises the sort of issues that have to be addressed on a daily basis with in the lively and dynamic environment of a city. In putting health at the heart of our urban development strategy, however, we believe we have created both a value based strategy and a purpose for the future of our city and region alike.