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Which cities take public health most seriously, and what exactly makes a healthy city?

Six in 10 people will live in urban areas by 2030, the World Health Organization estimates. Life in cities poses some real health challenges that people in rural areas simply don't encounter on the same level, from being the perfect "petri dishes" for the spread of communicable diseases, to logistical problems, air pollution, and, often, large slums lacking even the most-needed hygiene. 

What are the healthiest cities to live in on a global level, and what does it take for a city to be considered "healthy"?

What Makes A City 'Healthy'?

"A healthy city is one that is continually 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 developing to their maximum potential," the World Health Organization explains, arguably in rather esoteric terms. Why couldn't they have come up with something simpler and more comprehensive?

"Health" is one of the most multi-faceted concepts around, and a city may offer great health benefits in one regard while completely failing its residents in another.

The WHO, then, believes — taking into account that many cities the world over lack proper sanitation, for instance — that a "healthy" city is one that is actively committed to improving the wellbeing of those who live there, whether or not they've already achieved their goals. 

Some of the things that are ultimately essential to a truly healthy city are:

  • Proper sanitation
  • Clean drinking water
  • Healthcare accessible all, not just the rich
  • Clean air and a lack of environmental pollution
  • Green spaces
  • Mental health services
  • A good quality of life

There is, then, not a single measure that can determine how healthy a city currently is. While we can and should take a look at amenities already available, the WHO is ultimately right that it takes a commitment to furthering public health for a city to find itself on any "healthy cities" list. 

Those cities that are commonly considered healthy places to live all have their own health perks, along with downsides. Let's take a look. 


Tokyo, Japan, is the largest city in the world. It may not come to mind as a "healthy city" at first sight — people from other countries tend to see the Japanese as overworked, and they frequently come across reports about student suicide rates — but the fact is that this bustling metropolis of around 35 million people has plenty of health perks. One of those is the city's hyper-modern transportation system that cuts average commute times down to just an hour and reduces its greenhouse gas emissions immensely. In fact, Tokyo is nowhere to be found on the huge 1215-item list of the most polluted cities in the world! 

Japan has the highest life expectancy of any country on Earth, in part because of its very efficient and modern healthcare system; a healthcare system that is universally accessible, with citizens required by law to carry health insurance and the government picking up 70 percent of their healthcare costs.

The downside? After the Fukushima disaster, radiation levels in Tokyo were found to be 20 times higher than they should be, though still not at levels considered to be dangerous. 

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