Seoul embarks on campaign for its healthAs an eager overachiever, Seoul is always looking for ways to improve its image as a cosmopolitan city. In 2002, nine glorious stadiums were unveiled for the World Cup. Most recently, there was the bullet train, which premiered last month.
Now Seoul officials want to improve the city from the inside. The city has joined the Healthy Cities campaign, under the auspices of the World Health Organization, focusing on citizens’ living and working conditions.
Healthy Cities, whose concept was born in 1985 during a health convention in Canada, became a WHO project in 1986.
In the western Pacific region last year, a group of cities formed the Alliance of Healthy Cities. According to the acting regional adviser, Susan P. Mercado, this is “an independent entity that works closely with the World Health Organization to promote the Healthy Cities approach to improve the quality of life and health in Asia and the Pacific.”
The alliance includes cities such as Noarlunga, Australia; Haiphong, Vietnam; and Toronto, all of them trying to improve physical and social environments for its citizens.
Cities must apply for entry into the program. None has been rejected so far, but each needs to go through an admission process. Candidates must identify priority health issues, develop a plan of action, secure political commitment, ensure the participation of the community, non-governmental organizations and private sectors, evaluate the project’s effectiveness and report the results periodically.
It sounds like a daunting task, but 32 cities in Asia are now part of the program, with more than 1,000 cities worldwide.
Seoul is one of those newcomers. Park Min-soo, the director of the city’s public health department, had heard about the WHO project when he was working at the district level. At the time, he lacked the authority to commission an attempt to become a Healthy City.
Luckily for him, around the time he was promoted to director of city health, he heard about Katrin Kreisel, a German public health expert who had participated in Healthy City Vienna and was working at the Korean Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
After enlisting her help, Mr. Park began the process to make Seoul a healthy city. In December 2003, the city council agreed to apply for membership in the Healthy City program. With the mayor’s assistance, the department of public health applied to the WHO and was accepted.
In a letter to the Alliance of Healthy Cities, Mayor Lee Myung-bak wrote that Seoulites “tend to maintain and promote their health by following ‘health trends’ and spending their money on strongly promoted and advertised wellness products.” He saw a need for a more holistic approach to health.
What this means for Seoulites, he wrote, could be the promotion of “a clean and secure urban environment along with a balanced and secure biological environment,” “clean and convenient housing environment,” stricter control of air and water pollution, increased green areas, decreasing garbage and promoting waste management.
The programs he envisions includes a balanced diet for children, anti-tobacco campaigns and restricting alcohol consumption, with perhaps a campaign targeting after-hour drinking sprees.
Mr. Park says the program’s budget this year is 40,000,000 won ($34,100) for the planning stage and will probably increase considerably next year as plans are put into action.
Some ideas Mr. Park is considering are based on social marketing research that shows behavior change takes commitment, especially on the peer-to-peer level. He’d like to see heads of companies commit to changing the workplace culture where drinking is concerned, by encouraging supervisors to send home those who come into work smelling of alcohol or halting the practice of praising employees who drink heavily.
Mr. Park has high hopes, but he’s also realistic. Any changes will take a very long time, he says.
The biggest hurdle that Healthy City Seoul initially faces is lobbying the help of politicians from other government departments, and on the district level, not just the health department. The departments of agriculture, education and justice are the ones who create laws and regulations that can affect public health.
Ms. Kreisel offer some examples of how public health issues are intertwined with others: Children’s health is affected by having to wake up before elementary school for private tutoring. Car emissions are not just a detriment to the environment but to health.
“There are so many factors that go into good health,” Ms. Kreisel says. “Even though people are wellness and health-oriented, especially young people, there is tremendous social stress in Korea.”
Ms. Kreisel, who officially started working for the department of health in March, has been putting together an advisory committee to identify the main health problems. About a dozen people met two weeks ago to discuss potential issues such as alcohol, tobacco consumption and nutrition. Once the committee members define what they want to work on, they’ll develop working groups to take a more grassroots approach.
The committee in Seoul will be enlisting help on the district level, perhaps at community centers to share information on health issues.
Seoul is benchmarking Tokyo, which is similar to Seoul in many ways, and Vienna as reference points, Mr. Park says. Tokyo has been a part of Healthy Cities since 1991.
Seoul will be partnering with Berlin in the Healthy City campaign. The two will share information gleaned from their research, as well as advice and expertise.
When Ms. Kreisel joined Healthy Cities in Vienna, she says she saw changes in the environment, from something as simple as safer sidewalks. Schools also participated, which meant that health became more prominent in the curriculum. Members also campaigned in workplaces to create awareness about proper furniture and sitting postures.
“Some cultural things shouldn’t be changed at the moment,” she says. “They have to be developed over time. Small changes can lead to larger changes.”
A city does not end its membership when it reaches certain goals. “There is no finite end point for healthy cities as it is difficult to conceive of a perfect human community,” says Ms. Mercado, the regional supervisor.
It’s a utopia and a very ambitious goal, but one that just might make Seoul a better place to live in.
Expatriate draws upon wealth of experience
Immersing herself in other cultures has long been the specialty of Katrin Kreisel, a German who is working with the Seoul government on the Healthy City program.
When she was a child, she traveled extensively as her father’s career with the World Health Organization took her all over the world.
From 1977 to 1984, she lived in Korea, attending Seoul International School, before moving on to Malaysia, the Philippines and Geneva.
While her parents continued traveling, she returned to Germany to study nutritional sciences. She studied public health nutrition, maternal and child health at the University of North Carolina, before setting her sights on a doctorate in nutritional science at the University of Vienna.
“I always wanted to be international,” she says, “especially dealing with nutrition in underdeveloped countries.”
She went to East Africa as part of her undergraduate work to survey the nutrition and health conditions of rural areas. “I was the only foreigner there,” she says.
Park Min-soo, the director of the Seoul metropolitan government’s health department, says he enlisted Ms. Kriesel’s help for the Healthy City campaign because of her rich experiences.
As one of the few foreigners working for the city government, she has found opportunities not just with the Healthy City campaign, but also in nutritional counseling.
She lectures at Seoul National University, where she’s been surprised at students’ lack of knowledge about eating disorders and getting help for them.
“I hope this problem doesn’t get worse and worse, but I think it will,” she says.
She’ll also be part of a health expo in the beginning of June.
by Joe Yong-hee