Copenhagen is a place to envy, from many perspectives – be it a cyclist fed up with London’s congested streets, still too often experienced as largely hostile to two wheels, despite recent policy shifts; or a tired family juggling childcare, work and long hours and wondering if another way is possible; or a culinary enthusiast inspired by new nordic cuisine which is possibly as healthy as the Mediterranean diet... and not to mention fans of gripping political dramas and that famous sweater.
A recent Guardian article has highlighted another area where Copenhagen is ahead of the curve, charting the city’s progress towards being a healthy city that cuts across municipal departmental silos embracing transport, food, the public realm, education, and mental health.
The healthy city approach starts with places, the people living there – and their needs. This has led to a set of initiatives that are more responsive, locally based and empower people to take control of their own health, rather than top-down medically driven approaches to health and wellbeing.
The examples cited are not new in themselves – mindfulness classes, mental health courses in schools, peer led approaches to disseminating health information in places where communities already gather, and cooking classes for men. But what is different is that together these represent a city committed to investing in prevention, accepting that, as the Mayor for Health and Care acknowledges in the article, "we will only know if that works in 30 years time".
There are many good examples of preventative approaches in the UK too. However, reading this article reminded me of the recent NLGN report that highlighted the factors holding back progress towards place-based health. One of these was risk aversion and needing evidence that prevention saves money: "If we never attempt to deliver place-based health, we can never prove that it works."
We have a different governance and health context from Denmark, but what can we learn about how they began to unlock the system to make a healthy city a reality?
Copenhagen’s approach shows that if health isn’t seen as a standalone goal for one administration, but is embedded in the actions of the municipality as a whole, then a “healthy city” will be the natural outcome of an ongoing drive to enhance the quality of life for its residents.