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You can find examples in almost every city, they come in many shapes and types, their popularity waxes and wanes, they can be stark, even ugly, deliberately uncomfortable or attractive, artistic even and ergonomic with consideration given to different populations and individual needs. They intersect my professional worlds of health and community safety policy. Their popularity, use and design tell us a great deal about urban problems and responses to these. Over recent months they have attracted a great deal of my attention and have achieved a new level of importance. This week I am going to consider the humble city bench. I would also like you to consider those in your area.

Look around your local urban environment, you are bound to soon come across examples of public seating. Depending on when they were installed and where located their form may be strikingly different and they may serve more than one purpose. In some areas substantial benches, normally metal, were installed to help protect shops and retail centres from ram raiders. More recently many city centres have seen seats and public meeting areas developed which also seek to deter and prevent vehicle attacks on specific sites. In financial and tourist areas you will often see comfortable seating, suitable for families and friends to sit, talk and socialise. However, in other areas, perhaps near train and bus stations you will find public seating which is more hostile. Perhaps ridged or studded so sitting there for long is uncomfortable, often divided by arm bars to prevent people being able to sprawl or lie across a bench. These intended to discourage rough sleepers or other “undesirables”.

Currently in the UK there is a lot of interest in helping improve our urban environments, a recognition that well designed high streets can provide health gains. The importance of good quality design and street furniture is acknowledged as is the importance of providing shade (London has today enjoyed its hottest April day in 70 years), shelter (it will rain again soon) alongside places to stop and rest. To those with young children, the elderly or living with a disability these are not just a nice addition, they are essentials to daily life. There are also social benefits in terms of tackling isolation and encouraging a sense of community.

Now I don’t deny that in certain locations public seating can become a focus for anti-social behaviour, street drinking and the like. But there are ways of countering this without resorting to either removing them entirely or providing, often at considerable expense uncomfortable, often aggressive looking seating which in itself detracts from the look of an area. Its not as if such measures put a roof over peoples’ heads, reduce violence or tackle problem drinking in a city, they are, rather a sign of hostility toward sections of their own community.

The theme of this year’s City Health conference in Odessa is developing healthy responses in a time of change. While we are not promised any sessions on city benches (although we will be looking at improving accessibility for disabled groups) there is an underpinning principle of making our cities healthier, better places for all groups. Benches and seats in themselves don’t directly address issues about ageing populations, blood borne viruses, obesity or migration they do perhaps provide a visible insight into the attitude of politicians and policy makers towards urban populations.

What you may ask has led to this interest in urban seating? Let me tell you. Lower back pain. The worlds leading cause of activity limitation. Over the last six months I have often found an absolute need to sit down, even lie down in numerous cities due to significant back pain. It’s given me a new perspective on the merits of good city seating, provided some enforced thinking time, and has made me reflect upon just how inhumane and pointless much public seating is. Hopefully come September my back will have improved but I shall be adding the benches of Odessa to my global review.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020
Everything is changed. COVID-19 and responses to it have seen dramatic and fundamental changes to how life is lived around the globe. International travel has come to a near complete halt, much of the world is under some form of lock down with businesses, schools, shops, pubs and cafes shut. Our economic and social reality is now unrecognisable from that of only weeks ago.
Tuesday, March 10, 2020
Clearly the current health focus is strongly centred on Covid- 19 and related issues, as it has been for the past few weeks. It is a demanding situation for politicians, officials, and indeed all of us, especially those working in our healthcare system. One of the major challenges we face is increasing understanding and encouraging changes in behaviour, while also avoiding panic and overreaction. Trusted and accurate information is clearly essential, both for those who have a key role and for the general public. We are certainly seeing more of England’s Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser in the media than usual. In the current situation, politicians are not only keen to hear from experts, but also happy to let them step into the spotlight. While we still see sensationalist headlines, there are also visible benefits of this approach, with more measured and informed elements within the media coverage- though this is less evident on the outer reaches of the online universe. Before I move on to other topics, let us reflect on the significant additional pressures being placed on our frontline health providers. They deserve our gratitude and, in many instances, much improved terms and conditions. Let’s hope that when this coronavirus issue passes the staff that so many rely on are not overlooked.
Monday, February 10, 2020
Public health is front and centre of the media currently, with concerns about the coronavirus outbreak, which was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan, splashed across almost every front page. With confirmed cases now reported in numerous countries across the world, we face the possibility of a pandemic. As several experts and commentators have pointed out, in our modern, highly interconnected world no epidemic remains a local concern. This, of course, makes for frightening headlines- which, in turn, calls for calm and informed responses.
Wednesday, January 15, 2020
So here we are: 2020. Let me start by wishing all of you the very best for the year ahead. I have, occasionally, been accused of an inclination toward cynicism and a failure to look on the bright side of things. So, for my first blog of the year, at least, I am going to be determinedly upbeat. You can judge for yourself how long it lasts. This sense of optimism is influenced by the fact that the end of 2019 saw some positive signs in the world of substance misuse. While it was something of a mad scramble against time, we managed to pull together a high quality and well-supported pan-London Christmas alcohol campaign. I am very grateful to colleagues who delivered the key elements of this work and to everyone who supported it. Some, in fact, went well beyond the call of duty to engage with our colleagues in the blue light services. Although we will not have any data in terms of its reach and impact for some months (I will update you), what I can confidently say is that many individuals and organisations liked the messaging and tone. I like to think it is helping contribute to Londoners having a more considered and healthier relationship with alcohol, though there is a way to go yet!

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CITY HEALTH INTERNATIONAL EVENTS

CHI Melbourne 2019

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CHI Liverpool 2019

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CHI Odessa 2018

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CHI Basel 2017

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CHI London 2016

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CHI Barcelona 2015

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CHI Amsterdam 2014

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CHI Glasgow 2013

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CHI London 2012

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City Health International
Founded in 2012 City Health International is a network of individuals and organisations engaged in the study of and response to structural health issues and health behaviours in the urban environment. For the first time in history the majority of the world’s population now live in urban environments and the proportion continues to grow. As national governments struggle to deal with the pressures and demands of growing urban populations against a backdrop of financial deficits and uncertainty, it is increasingly left to those working at a city level to provide the leadership and support needed to tackle key health issues.