A new study by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) estimates, for the first time, premature mortality and distribution by socioeconomic level of multiple environmental exhibitions related to urban planning and transportation in both cities.
Currently, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. In Spain, this trend is even more pronounced and 80% live in urban settings. Madrid and Barcelona are two of the most populated cities in Europe and the ones with the most socioeconomic inequalities among their inhabitants. In European cities such as Vienna, Bradford and Barcelona, recent research shows that considerable premature mortality – between 8 and 20% – is associated with poor transport and urban planning.
Madrid and Barcelona are two of the most populated cities in Europe and the ones with the most socioeconomic inequalities among their inhabitants
The new study, published in the journal Environmental Research, set out to estimate the impact of non-compliance with international recommendations in atmospheric pollution –fine particles (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) -, heat, traffic noise and lack of green spaces in the residents of Barcelona and Madrid for more than 20 years, cities with different urban planning. While Madrid is structured around a central nucleus where most of the economic activity is concentrated; Barcelona, on the other hand, is considered a compact city with the economic weight divided into various neighborhoods.
The research was carried out with a focus on environmental inequities. The researchers set out to “identify the population groups that are most exposed and most vulnerable to the effects of poor urban and transportation planning,” he explains. Tamara iungman, ISGlobal researcher and first author of the study.
Regarding the methodology, the tool ‘Health impact assessment of urban and transport planning’ was applied (UTOPHIA), which has been developed by a team from ISGlobal. “We compared current exposure levels with international recommendations and estimated the fraction of preventable premature deaths that could be prevented if we were to achieve those recommendations,” says Iungman.
We identify the population groups that are most exposed and most vulnerable to the effects of poor urban and transportation planning
The conclusions showed that non-compliance with the WHO recommendations on air pollution, noise and access to green spaces, coupled with excess heat, are related to 1,037 premature deaths per year in Barcelona. The air pollution by fine particles is the exposure that is associated with higher premature mortality, which accounts for 524 deaths per year (48% of all deaths), followed by lack of green spaces (227 deaths), the exposure to traffic noise (124 deaths), the hot (112 deaths) and, finally, exposure to NO2 (12 deaths).
As to Madrid, the total number of deaths attributable to non-compliance with international recommendations is 902. The lack of green spaces is the exposure that is associated with higher premature mortality (337 deaths per year), followed by excess heat (244 deaths), exposure to air pollution from NO2 (207 deaths) and PM2.5 (173 deaths), and noise (148 deaths).
A previous ISGlobal study attributed 20% of premature mortality in Barcelona to poor transport and urban planning. “The lowest values obtained in this health impact assessment for Barcelona and Madrid –7.1% and 3.4%, respectively– may be due to the fact that physical activity was not included in this study, as well as to the reductions in harmful exposure levels in recent years, as well as the different methodology used to estimate mortality attributable to noise ”, argues Iungman.
A previous ISGlobal study attributed 20% of premature mortality in Barcelona to poor urban and transport planning
Differences between Barcelona and Madrid
With better urban and transport planning, Barcelona would avoid almost twice as many deaths as Madrid: 72 versus 33 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. “This difference can be explained in part because scientific evidence associates higher mortality with exposure to PM2.5, which is higher in Barcelona; Another explanation would be the greater density of traffic and population in Barcelona, given that its surface represents one sixth of that of Madrid ”, he details Natalie Mueller, ISGlobal researcher and study coordinator.
The City of Barcelona exceeded the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) for PM2.5, with an annual average of 15 μg / m3, while NO2 levels did adjust to the recommended values, with an annual average 37 μg / m3. In Madrid, the annual levels established by the WHO were exceeded both fine particles and NO2.
The main difference between the two cities is in air pollutants. The conclusions show higher levels of fine particles in Barcelona and NO2 in Madrid, and a different spatial distribution – high levels of PM2.5 throughout Barcelona and higher levels of nitrogen dioxide in the center of the Spanish capital.
The main difference between the two cities is in air pollutants. The conclusions show higher levels of fine particles in Barcelona and NO2 in Madrid
“While the main source of NO2 emission is local motorized traffic, fine particles have a greater dispersion capacity and are associated with other sources of combustion, in addition to traffic. Nearby large industrial areas and the port could influence the high levels of fine particles in Barcelona, ”Mueller highlights.
Regarding green spaces, the vast majority of the population of Madrid and Barcelona –84% and 95%, respectively– does not have access to these natural environments, based on the WHO recommendation to live at a distance of 300 meters from a green space of more than half a hectare. This lack of generalized access shows that “for green spaces to have health benefits –in addition to mitigating other exposures such as noise and excess heat– it is necessary to consider not only the availability in the city, but also their distribution so that the and residents can access them by walking, ”he says.
With regard to noise, 97% of the population of Madrid and 96% of that of Barcelona were exposed to levels of traffic noise motorized higher than WHO recommendations. “Both cities present a considerable burden of mortality attributable to traffic noise, which emphasizes the need to address and reduce it to improve the health of the population,” argues the researcher.
Although there are no specific recommendations for excessive heatIn Barcelona, the minimum mortality was calculated at 22.5 ° C and, in Madrid, at 21.5 ° C, and the impacts of a potential reduction of 1 ° were estimated. “The two cities had a similar attributable mortality rate and we found correlations between fewer green spaces and higher levels of heat and noise,” adds Iungman.
Poor urban and transport planning in Barcelona is associated with higher mortality in areas with lower socioeconomic levels, while, in Madrid, the attributable mortality burden varies according to exposure
The results of the study show that poor urban and transport planning in Barcelona is related to higher mortality in areas with lower socioeconomic levels, while, in Madrid, the attributable mortality burden varies according to exposure. Although air pollution, the lack of green spaces and excess heat are a general problem in Barcelona, attributable mortality was higher in the most deprived areas. Thus, the populations of the most disadvantaged areas had a 1.26 times higher mortality rate, compared to less disadvantaged groups.
In Madrid, the most disadvantaged neighborhoods tended to have a greater exposure to PM2.5 and heat than the less disadvantaged neighborhoods, while NO2 and noise presented the inverse association. This is probably due to the fact that the population of the lowest socioeconomic level resides in more peripheral areas and close to industrial areas, where the cost of living is cheaper –and therefore they are more exposed to PM2.5 and heat–, while that the population of medium and medium-high socioeconomic level reside in the urban center of Madrid, with greater traffic and exposure to NO2 and traffic noise.
With respect to green areasAlthough the lack of access affected both people of low and middle socioeconomic level – since, respectively, they tend to live in the southern and southeastern periphery, areas with more industry and commerce; and in the city center with a limited presence of green areas. However, in terms of attributable mortality, people living in the most deprived areas were those who had the most adverse health impacts related to the lack of natural spaces, probably due to greater vulnerability and a worse general health.
Health impact assessments are a powerful tool to guide policy makers towards a healthy, sustainable and fair city for all its residents
Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, one of the authors of the study and director of ISGlobal’s Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative, points out that “this analysis is in line with previous research that shows that people who live in more disadvantaged neighborhoods tend to be more exposed to harmful environmental exposures, compared to those living in richer areas; although this inequity depends on the characteristics of the design of each city ”.
Nieuwenhuijsen concludes that “this work shows the great impact of environmental exposures on premature mortality and highlights the importance of designing cities taking into account health impacts, assessing the specificities of each urban environment and prioritizing disadvantaged populations.” “Health impact evaluations are a powerful tool to guide policy makers towards a healthy, sustainable and fair city for all its residents ”, he highlights.
Tamara Iungman et al. “The impact of transport and urban planning practices on health: Assessment of the attributable mortality burden in Madrid and Barcelona and its distribution by socioeconomic status”. Environmental Research.