Besides former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the corporate heavyweights from Australia attending this month’s Davos economic summit was a leading figure in the campaign for healthier cities, Fiona Bull.
The surging prevalence of obesity and calls for more effective measures to counter the convenience food and drink conglomerates were aired at the World Economic Forum, itself attended by chiefs of companies like Coca-Cola and Nestle.
Professor Bull, of Perth, made her main message at Davos a call for society to “recalibrate” urban development. Society needs to “design in” the opportunities and places for physical activity in travel, at work and schools and in recreation, she says.
“Physical inactivity is a global problem – and is being largely ignored. Certainly action is disproportionate to its importance and potential gains,” Professor Bull tells Croakey.
“The benefits of regular activity for individuals and society are large – in health (mental, physical and social) and in co-benefits — less traffic, better air quality, social capital and community connectedness, [and] perception of safety.”
“My challenge to the audience at Davos was what industry, civil society and governments should do to scale up implementation.”
Professor Bull, director of the Centre for Built Environment and Health at the University of Western
Australia, also chairs GAPA-Global Advocacy for Physical Activity, is president-elect of the International Society for Physical Activity and Health and is a WHO advisor on physical activity.
Material on health topics at the WEF can be seen here.
Professor Bull focused on the environment and transport as she says these are the most upstream options and if done well would create the conditions for active communities in towns and cities.
She attended sessions where designers and others spoke on different twists to promoting walking and physical activity.
At another session, developers, construction industry and government leaders spoke on building smart cities of the future – meeting the triple agenda of environment, economy and people.
“Yes there are some good things happening in Australian – from different angles,” she says, citing the Heart Foundation’s Healthy Spaces and Places policy and Western Australia’s Liveable Neighbourhood Guidelines –
At Davos, obesity was described as “a global pandemic” which could result in more than half the world’s adults being overweight within 20 years, prompting for more action than merely accusing people of failing to have self-discipline in their diet and physical activity.
Reuters reported that while business leaders agree that obesity drags down economic growth those meeting at Davos could not agree what to do about it.
The WEF estimates a cumulative $47 trillion of output might be lost in the next 20 years a result of non-communicable diseases and mental health problems, with obesity blamed for 44 percent of the diabetes burden and 23 percent of heart disease costs.
Reuters reported that “one look at the list of the strategic partners of the WEF shows how many vested interests are at play – food and drink companies are blamed for feeding the crisis, while drug manufacturers profit from soaring rates of diabetes”.
“We could stop selling ice cream, but people are still going to want to eat ice cream,” said Paul Bulcke, chief executive of food giant Nestle, which has been investing heavily in developing healthier products, including low-fat ice cream.
Last week Coca-Cola, whose chief executive, Muhtar Kent, was one of the co-chairs at Davos, launched a commercial on American cable television seeking to highlight the company’s efforts in fighting obesity.
Separately a report to Davos says the spectacular rate of urbanisation poses opportunities and challenges in many countries to build healthier cities.
Changes to the rules of urban design and planning should consider such developments as:
– Mandating pavements and properly protected cycle lanes as an integral part of highway construction in new cities
– Reforming planning policies to create communal space for exercise indoors and outdoors, with the cost borne by property developers.
“Promoting healthier lives remains a puzzle that has not yet been solved,” said the WEF report.