The Anatomy of a Healthy City

The Anatomy of a Healthy City

There is little doubt that the places in which we live, work, and play can affect both our mental and physical well-being. Indeed, our built environment offers both opportunities for, and barriers to improving public health and increasing active living. The concept of a Healthy City emerged from the work of the United Nations public health arm, the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO defines a Healthy City as follows:

"A Healthy City is one that is continuously creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources which enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and in developing their maximum potential." (WHO 2011)

In more practical terms, the Urban Land Institute (ULI)  has identified the following 10 principles for building healthy cities:

1. Put People First
2. Recognize the Economic Value
3. Empower Champions for Health
4. Energize Shared Spaces
5. Make Healthy Choices Easy
6. Ensure Equitable Access
7. Mix It Up
8. Embrace Unique Character
9. Promote Access to Healthy Food
10. Make It Active

In this article, we take a tour of 4 destinations from across the globe that rank among the top 10 healthiest and most livable according to a new ranking released by CNN, thanks to excellent mass transit infrastructure, ample green spaces and readily available healthcare, wellness and leisure opportunities. To read the full list, click here. If you're interested in viewing products that can help you make your city more environmentally friendly, search 'green' on

©  pexels   Above: Ranked as both the healthiest and happiest city in the world, nearly half of commuters in Copenhagen, Denmark,  travel to work or school by bike each day thanks to an extensive and well-designed system of integrated bicycle paths.

© pexels

Above: Ranked as both the healthiest and happiest city in the world, nearly half of commuters in Copenhagen, Denmark,

travel to work or school by bike each day thanks to an extensive and well-designed system of integrated bicycle paths.


CADdetails has featured Copenhagen, Denmark previously in this space, as one of the world’s most bicycle friendly cities, among other accolades. Famously home to the world’s happiest people, Copenhagen is a bustling capital city full of ambitious professionals and young families. Yet, according to an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, working long hours in the Danish capital is frowned upon, with a mere 2% of employees working 40 hours week or more. This allows residents to effectively balance work demands with quality time, giving them more free time to socialize with family and friends, play sports, volunteer and participate in an abundance of free community programs, including something intriguingly called laughter yoga!

Recently named the World’s Most Healthy City by CNN, Copenhagen is perhaps most renowned for its effective and green transport options, with an ambitious goal of becoming the world’s most practicable city for cyclists. The city has 249 miles of cycle lanes, which makes cycling an easy and safe transportation option. And people use them: More than half of commuters travel to work or school by bike each day. Though parks and cycle lanes are already plentiful in Copenhagen, the local government continues to expand both. By the end of this year, all residents must be able to reach a park or beach by foot in less than 15 minutes, according to a new official municipal policy. Many of the new parks created will be “pocket parks” such as the one pictured above. Pocket parks are defined as open green spaces designed at a very small scale, often created on vacant building lots, on irregular pieces of land, or placed around a monument or historically significant building. The hope is that they will help keep residents fit and help the environment by reducing traffic and pollution.

Not surprisingly, Copenhagen was also crowned Europe’s Green Capital in 2014 by the European Economic Commission. Among the initiatives that swayed the independent jury in Copenhagen’s favor are the city’s efforts to increase the number of cyclists, become carbon neutral in 2025, and ensure Copenhageners have better access to nature areas. In terms of Energy Performance, an estimated 75% of the CO2 reductions will come from initiatives in relation to the city’s energy system mainly involving an increase in the share of renewable energy in the City’s district heating.

Finally, here’s one more stat that may make you want to start packing your bags for Denmark: Ninety-six percent of residents in Copenhagen report having a strong support system. Access to a strong social network is proven to have a multitude of both mental and physical benefits, including reduced anxiety and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. It is just one more reason why Copenhagen has earned its coveted spot as one of the healthiest and happiest cities in the world.

© Paul Krueger -  Flickr

© Paul Krueger - Flickr


Featuring a vibrant downtown, a world class public transportation system and miles of the best biking infrastructure in Canada, Vancouver, British Columbia, justifiably wins the title of the “most walkable city in Canada” and is consistently ranked as one of the top livable cities in the world. The shift away from a car-centered culture is one reason the city also has some of the cleanest air in the world. Other reasons the city ranks as the healthiest in North America according to the CNN report include strict environmental standards for buildings and businesses, as well a natural environment celebrated for its rugged beauty, evergreen forests and ocean breezes that help purify air pollutants.

In 2011, Vancouver adopted the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, with the ambitious goal of making the Canadian metro area the most environmentally friendly city in the world by the year 2020. Vancouver’s leaders have already done a lot to protect and celebrate its natural environment. Residents have easy access to acres of green space, fresh water, the Pacific Ocean and nearby mountains. In fact, Vancouver’s tight fusion with the natural environment has made the city a haven for sustainable businesses. At the same time, businesses and government have collaborated to build up downtown. As a result, there has been about a 75% increase in the number of people who live and work in Vancouver’s center in the past 20 years, which means fewer commuters driving in and out of the city. In fact, Vancouver has the unique distinction of being the only major city in Canada and the United States that lacks a freeway system. This has helped the city maintain strong urban neighborhoods and given the city a unique high-rise urban development model known as ‘Vancouverism’ that is studied by city planners all over the world. As shown here, Vancouverism is characterized by tall slim towers for population density, widely separated by low-rise buildings, for light, air, and views, significant reliance on mass public transit, and creation and maintenance of green park spaces and walkable streets.

Aside from promoting clean air, Vancouver’s leaders have put forth great effort to ensure all residents have access to quality health care, exceptional community centers, nutritious food, and a happy and safe environment. Overall, Vancouver has seen an impressive 6% reduction in its carbon emissions since 1990, despite a nearly 30% growth in population and an 18% growth in jobs.

© Jonathan Lin -  Flickr

© Jonathan Lin - Flickr


For five years in a row, Melbourne, Australia has been ranked number one in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Most Liveable City index. In 2015, the city scored a hefty 97.5 out of 100 on the study's liveability index rating, which assesses a city's civil stability, healthcare, culture, environment, education, and infrastructure, beating out Vienna by just .1 of a point. The CNN ‘Healthiest Cities’ report describes the city as clean, safe and welcoming, without the bitter weather, overburdened infrastructure or civil unrest that plague some other urban centers.

The city aims to achieve zero emissions for the municipality by 2020. A major contribution to this strategy is the reduction in energy consumption of commercial buildings by 50%. Council House 2 (CH2), pictured above, was piloted in an effort to provide a working example for the local development market.

One of Australia’s greenest buildings, CH2 was the first new commercial office building in Australia to meet and exceed the six star rating system administered by the Green Building Council of Australia. Equally important to its environmental features is that it provides 100% fresh air to all occupants with one complete air change every half hour. The benefits of superior indoor air quality and conservative estimates on energy costs will see the building pay for all its innovation within five to ten years.

The design achieved this result through a combination of local practices and international innovation including recycled concrete, recycled timber, timber windows, sewer mining and co-generating using natural gas. Shower towers and phase change material have been employed to produce and store cold water for use by chilled ceilings and beams, while wind turbines are used to extract air during a ‘night purge.’ Solar hot water heating and photovoltaics take advantage of good solar access as a result of CH2’s location within the 40 metre height limit of Melbourne’s central business district.

CH2 was designed in association with the City of Melbourne to be a holistic and all-inclusive system with its occupants as participants. The design follows a model that promotes a more interactive role between the city and nature, acting more like an ecosystem in which all parties depend on each other.

In addition, Melbourne has an extensive network of rail lines, streetcars and busses, including the largest urban tramway network in the world. It is considered by many the cultural capital of Australia, and has been named one of the friendliest cities on the planet.


Residents of Singapore experience both some of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates and the highest life expectancies: 84.07 years, number four in the world according to the CIA World Factbook. Ranked among the most efficient health care systems across the globe, up to 80% of residents use the public health system, which has a few different pricing tiers. Overall, Singapore is one of the world’s cleanest cities, with strict laws forbidding everything from spitting to littering. The government has successfully used incentives, pricing and congestion charging to reduce the amount of car traffic from its high point in the 1970s. The city’s comprehensive mass transit system, SMRT, carries more than two million passengers every day. 

There are few dense cities in the world today that can claim a better record of greening the city than Singapore. Calling itself the Garden City, there are dozens of parks, gardens and mountain trails around the island. Each year, up to 2,000 trees are introduced to Singapore's roads, parks and state lands. This is part of efforts by the National Parks Board (NParks) to enhance greenery and boost biodiversity in a rapidly growing urban environment. Singapore's journey to become a Garden City began in 1963, when founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched a tree-planting campaign. It was his vision to cultivate greenery and soften the harshness of the metropolis. As the country continues to urbanise, the city now strives to become a City in a Garden. 

NParks' Streetscape Greenery Master Plan is a blueprint to introduce a wide variety of new plant species along the roads. The plants are sourced from nurseries and nature reserves in Singapore, as well as botanic gardens across the region. They all begin their journey in NParks' tree banks. There are five such tree banks across the island, and they are home to more than 5,000 trees of 70 different species.

Singapore's surreal Gardens by the Bay, pictured above, opened in the summer of 2012. Entering the Gardens, you're immediately introduced to one of the main attractions: the Supertrees. Standing between 80-160 ft, each Supertree is a spectacular vertical garden supporting a range of ferns, vines, orchids and other plants, which creep over the towering, purple skeletal structures. Each Supertree is designed to mimic the function of a real tree, with photovoltaic cells to echo photosynthesis and contribute energy to run the park. The trees also collect water during Singapore's frequent heavy rains and channel it throughout the park wherever irrigation or fountains are needed. Some are also used as exhaust flues for the Gardens' underground biomass boilers.

In addition to the signature Supertree grove, the project features a pair of carbon neutral conservatories - one of which is the largest climate controlled greenhouse in the world. Designed by Wilkinson Eyre, the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest make use of passive and active sustainable technologies to create the perfect microclimate for exotic plants to grow. As a bonus, there's also the world's tallest indoor waterfall!

As these examples illustrate, cities employing more people-centered design `can go a long way to create healthier citizens and more dynamic urban environments. 

Looking to make your city more environmentally friendly?  Search 'green' on

cover photo © Unsplash

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