The Healthy Cities Network aims to deepen the relationship between health and the urban environment, following a holistic approach by focusing on three overarching topics: greening and landscaping, mobility and connectivity, and lifestyle and sports.
To gather expert advice for urban planners on improving health outcomes in cities, we are creating a series of three interviews based on our focus topics. This first installment spotlights lifestyle and sports.
We are delighted to be joined by Mélanie Duparc, Director of Smart Cities & Sport – the world’s leading network of sports cities and a valuable partner of the Healthy Cities Network.
Could you tell us a bit of background about yourself, Smart Cities & Sport, and the network’s origins in Olympic host cities?
In addition to directing Smart Cities & Sport, Mélanie Duparc is the Secretary General of World Union of Olympic Cities, the only association that brings together former and future Olympics cities. Coming from a more political rather than sports background, she oversaw other networks before this, focusing first on sustainability and then on sustainability in sporting events.
This background has helped shape her perspective to see sports as a clear tool for cities, which she is grateful for as this perspective is increasingly important for city representatives at all political levels.
When Ms Duparc began working with the union, she very quickly noticed that the topic they were covering was broader and of interest to all cities, not only olympic cities, because using sports as a tool for public policy could be of interest to anyone. This led her to create a second network open to all cities, Smart Cities & Sport.
The network experienced a lot of engagement from the start, as before it was created the Olympic cities union got many requests from cities who wanted to learn from the hosts. Creating Smart Cities & Sport was therefore a response to the high demand for guidance.
Smart Cities & Sport focuses on topics they find most relevant for cities, trying to find the latest best practices and to showcase this in the clearest, most applicable way for cities. They cover a wide array of themes – looking beyond only health and sports to topics like social inclusion, tourism, and urban marketing – which is ideal because sports are now considered not as a niche topic solely for athletes or enthusiasts but as a tool for all citizens to improve their quality of life.
The partnership’s work encompasses many toolkits with pragmatic information, but Ms Duparc says the most effective way to help cities is simply to give them a contact person. The ideas are easy to find online, but if a city wants to call someone for more information it can be hard to find the right contact. Solving this is at the core of the network’s mission - to offer a platform where cities can interact by themselves without the need to go through the network.
Looking specifically at this history of hosting the Olympics, how can cities that have hosted such large public events harness this opportunity to benefit their citizens’ health, and how this could be applied at different scales of events?
There are two key considerations in this question:
The first is that Smart Cities & Sport has very different cities in their network - some cities like Stockholm hosted games over 100 years ago, long before the concept of legacy was being discussed, but even they are still active in developing the legacy as they recognise a responsibility to continuously give back to their citizens after the Olympic games.
The second consideration related to the games is that they are essentially a compilation of different world championships, happening all together simultaneously. This point of view makes it easy to replicate their approach for any world championship or sporting event hosted by a city, as they too can activate the legacy of having had world-class athletes visit and inspire locals. These events are more than just games, they put sports at the top of the agenda for that city.
Activating this legacy can be taken beyond cities to a national level, so all cities in a host country can use this opportunity to promote more active lifestyles. For example, in advance of Paris hosting the 2024 Olympics France has launched an initiative called “Terre de Jeux” to activate the Olympic legacy across the nation, even in cities hosting no part of the games. The movement takes a holistic approach much like that of Smart Cities & Sport - encompassing social inclusion with sports and health.
Cities and countries are recognising that it's not just just about organising the games for 15 days, but it's truely about how to improve and increase sports participation locally in the long term.
What are some of the biggest lessons and challenges from your experience with the network, publications, and annual summit?
The biggest takeaway is that it is fundamental to be a platform and facilitator offering people opportunities to discuss directly with each other. This is the most important part, but also the most challenging. Ms Duparc is happy to see that the organisation is succeeding in this as most of their cities are regular participants that have built a strong sense of community together, even to the point of feeling like a family.
COVID-19 has been a significant challenge for the network, as it has for many others around the world, because it can be difficult to maintain connections with only virtual tools. They used to have meetings twice a year, but those have now been pushed online and the team has had to get creative in encouraging participation.
The network is very open and everything they share is free. They understand politics can make it difficult for some cities to join associations, so they keep participation flexible. However, this means it can sometimes be difficult to maintain contact in the long term with all the cities who get involved, especially in the midst of a pandemic.
The next question is two-fold looking at what you have learned about city-to-city learning and collaboration - both the benefits and best ways to facilitate this. And within that, how do you see the role of the partnership between Smart Cities & Sport and the Healthy Cities Network?
The key to city-to-city learning is the more pragmatic and concrete you can be, the more efficient the collaboration will be. When running your city or project you need very basic information and inspiration to improve health outcomes, and overcomplicating this can notably hinder progress. There are limits to great, applicable ideas, but there are no limits to replication.
Smart Cities & Sport sees a great need for cities to collaborate directly with one another. Especially when travel is not an option it is evermore important to connect with and learn from others.
The network knew from the start that they could not produce all the information needed for healthy and active cities alone, so instead they focus on bringing the right experts together so the knowledge can flow between them. A tremendous amount of information is already out there, so they partner with a wide array of networks to gather advice from specialists.
When it comes to building partnerships outside their network, Ms Duparc says it is really a question of expertise. They want to enrich their platform with the best experts in each field, which is why they are developing partnerships like the one between Smart Cities & Sport and the Healthy Cities Network. One of their main goals is to bring the best content and inspiration to their cities. Health is of particular interest in the political sphere and was even before the pandemic, as the different tools and methodologies can be leveraged to implement a healthy city.
Moving on to look at impact - what are some of the biggest impacts you’ve seen come from your network in terms of improving health outcomes in partner cities, and how do you measure these?
There is no singular methodology to measure impact as no one-size-fits-all can apply to cities from diverse regions with unique challenges.
The partnership’s role is not to monitor impact, but to offer cities a variety of methods that they can use to generate health and monitor their progress. At the end of the day, the most important driver in cities is having the political will to implement changes.
Ms Duparc’s home city of Lausanne, Switzerland, hosted the 2020 Youth Olympic Games and used the opportunity to invite mayors of Olympic cities and work on a call to action for healthy cities at a political level. The first step in implementing any kind of approach or methodology to improve local health is involving political leaders, so by involving many representatives the network could measure their successful reach.
You publish research and case studies on your platform to inspire cities around the world in promoting more active lifestyles - how do you go about creating these and what recommendations would you give to others pursuing this kind of research?
Every year the network focuses on a specific thematic topic such as women in sports, sports innovation hubs, or healthy cities. Each time they explore a new topic they can open the network a bit more as new cities are attracted by different topics.
Choosing the year’s topic is quite important and the network focuses on contemporary issues that impact many cities globally. This year the network elected tourism as their theme because it is a huge challenge in the ages of COVID and the climate crisis, but it poses a great opportunity to see how cities can adapt and develop new strategies.
Sports can be a great tool here, as many locations that champion sports tourism and active tourism have shifted their focus to their communities in the face of these challenges. By reexamining tourism from a more local perspective, these cities are creating healthier environments and opportunities for the citizens they serve.
Lastly, more of a future-focused question: imagine 10-15 years from now the problem is solved and the world’s cities are as healthy as they could be – what did it take to get there? And what does your city look like?
Ms Duparc says it is difficult to imagine this utopia as she and Smart Cities & Sport take a very realistic, on-the-ground approach to the changes that need to happen. Urban planning is a long-term process that requires a lot of forethought, and progress simply needs step-by-step efforts to deal with each city’s unique challenge.
One example of this utopia could be the 15-minute city, where every citizen lives within 15 minutes of a park or green space where they can get active. Another is creating active mobility opportunities that balance traffic jams, bicycle lanes, and pedestrian walk-ways.
Cities need small adjustments to redefine urban planning. Once again, it is vital to remember that the more pragmatic and concrete you can be, the more effective your plans will be. The process may be long but at its core it is simple, and it will take political will and strong commitment to change things day-by-day.