WESTOCK PRODUCTIONS/shutterstock
WESTOCK PRODUCTIONS/shutterstock

It’s been four years since Bloomberg Philanthropies launched the Partnership for Healthy Cities, an initiative that engaged a global network of urban centers to address the two public health issues, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and physical injuries, that data showed caused an estimated 80% of deaths around the globe each year (but only drew a fraction of funding).

Created as part of Michael Bloomberg’s role as the WHO’s global ambassador for NCDs and injuries, the Partnership for Healthy Cities allows local governments to select from a menu of 14 interventions that run the gamut from tobacco control to data surveillance. City staffers receive a full spectrum of support on the ground, including grants of up to $100,000, technical assistance, communications support, and networking opportunities that promote collaboration and the open sharing of lessons and best practices.

The partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the global health organization Vital Strategies pairs policy and program work with local interventions. Tactics for reducing NCDs like cardiovascular disease and asthma, for example, include smoking cessation programs and promoting healthier eating habits. Strategies to help reduce physical injuries include mandating motorcycle helmets and enforcing motorist speed limits.

The partnership’s approach is classic Bloomberg philanthropy: apply big money to local, partnership-centric interventions with easily measurable results—while still being willing to take on major challenges to human well-being. For instance, Bloomberg has committed over $1.1 billion over the past decade to help cities reduce tobacco use, a problem that contributes to millions of deaths a year globally.

Recently, the partnership announced a project expansion, adding six new cities around the globe. The expanded commitment bumps the network’s total number of cities from 64 to 70—and the overall investment in Healthy Cities up by $31 million, to $52 million.

Here are three things to know about the network, and how inclusion may impact cities in Argentina, Egypt, Ireland, Poland, Romania and the United Kingdom.

(1) The network has been expanding

The Partnership for Healthy Cities is truly global in scope. Far-flung places like Tianjin, China, and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, were among the original cohort of 40 cities, which included metros across Africa, Europe and South America.

As the number grew to 64, new cities in the network included Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Harare, Zimbabwe. Over time, the network in the U.S. expanded from one site in Philadelphia to four cities, with the addition of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

Of the six new cities entering the initiative, four are the first to participate from their respective countries. Cairo is the first city in Egypt; Dublin is the first in Ireland; Warsaw is the first in Poland; Bucharest is the first in Romania.

The two other cities are located in nations with at least one other site already. Cordoba joins Buenos Aires as the second site in Argentina, and Greater Manchester is the third site in the U.K., along with London and Birmingham.

(2) Three new cities have plans underway 

Three cities are ready to move forward with concrete plans.

In Egypt’s capital, Cairo, the Cairo Governorate will immediately begin work on making healthier food options available in city restaurants. Khaled Abdel-Aal, the governor of Cairo, said the city looks forward to benefiting from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ expertise, “as well as other cities’ experiences, to ensure that best international practices are reflected in our efforts.”

In Ireland, the Dublin City Council is conducting a pedestrian access and safety audit to help streets and sidewalks become more people-friendly. Lord Mayor of Dublin Alison Gilliland said, “We live in an increasingly connected global world, and networks like these are very important in helping us all learn from one another. Here in Dublin, we have been working hard to promote active mobility by increasing facilities for cyclists and introducing school zones and cycle buses, as well as pedestrianizing some of our city center streets.”

In Córdoba, Argentina, the initial focus will be on increasing COVID-19 vaccine outreach to illiterate older adults, or to those with vaccine hesitancy. Intendant Martín Llaryora said that Cordoba believes that “joining the partnership will propel our city into a healthier future, helping us make a qualitative leap in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and return to normalcy in the healthiest way.”

Three other city initiatives are still in the planning stages. Bucharest, Romania; Greater Manchester, U.K.; and Warsaw, Poland, are expected to announce their health or safety projects in the near future.

As in Cordoba, the pandemic will also be front-of-mind in decision-making for Greater Manchester. Mayor Andy Burnham said, “COVID-19 exposed existing health and social inequalities, and parts of the North of England have seen a dramatic fall in life expectancy… Joining a global network like this can help the city build on existing commitments and means we can share ideas and solutions with each other to close the health and wealth gaps between communities.”

(3) COVID response is a priority

Since the pandemic began, the Healthy Cities network also provided a natural artery for Bloomberg Philanthropies’ outreach around COVID-19 in the places it touches—like Sub-Saharan Africa—and doubled as a valuable global networking resource.

Work pivoted to aiding network cities’ COVID-19 responses. That included a webinar series led by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative to connect mayors around the globe and arm them with the data, tools, perspectives and resources they need to make good decisions. Fifty-two cities in the network also received additional funding to boost their COVID-19 response and vaccination efforts, including outreach on how best to educate high-risk populations on the importance of the vaccine.

The pandemic also accelerated action on some cities’ existing partnership programs. In Latin America, for instance, a number of members focused on expanding bicycling infrastructure as the pandemic upped the demand for safer transportation alternatives.

The demographics say that urban centers will be critical to the global recovery from COVID. José Luis Castro, president and CEO of Vital Strategies, said, “Cities have long served as drivers of public health, a distinction which holds even more importance as urban areas stand to absorb up to 68% of the world’s population by 2050. Our global network is leading the way to make big, systemic changes to improve the health and safety of urban residents around the world.”

This latest expansion of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ global giving remains well in line with its approach both abroad and at home. Mike Bloomberg has long funded according to the maxim that smart, tractable interventions at the local level—most often in urban centers—are the best way to achieve philanthropic impact. While we’ve written before about what that approach may lack in a U.S. context, it’s still a good way to build muscle around global policy coordination and learning as cities face public health challenges that have little regard for national borders.

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