Groningen, healthiest city in the Netherlands

The expression stating that “there is nothing above Groningen” (er gaat niets boven Groningen) points to both its geographical location and a metaphorical one: “nothing beats the northernmost provincial capital.” Apparently, there is some truth in the saying, at least given the results of the City Health Index 2020, published by consulting firm Arcadis, in which Groningen tops as the healthiest city in the Netherlands. The study, which traced connections between health and urban living environments, ranked 20 of the largest cities in the country according to five categories. It declared Groningen, Nijmegen and Maastricht the healthiest three, while none of the biggest five Dutch cities reached the top ten.

“Why are some people healthier than others? An important part of the answer to that question can be found in where we live, work and play,” says John Boon, Arcadis head of landscape architecture. The World Health Organization defines a healthy city as one that is continually creating and improving its physical and social environments and expanding community resources which enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and developing to their maximum potential. According to the City Health Index, Groningen is currently the Dutch city with the highest set of characteristics that make a healthy city, as “it stands for active citizenship, accessible greenery, active relaxation, healthy moving and healthy building environments”.

Several factors add to the success of Groningen as a healthy city, starting with the fact that its surroundings are less polluted than other parts of the country. Furthermore, many years of active urban planning have been directed towards creating a car-free city center where pedestrians and cyclists can have a more welcoming, more relaxing and more efficient environment. This process, that began in the 1970s with ambitious reforms, continues today. In Groningen, considered a world cycling city, 60% of journeys are made by bicycle. Its physical environment incentivizes a healthier lifestyle with cleaner infrastructure, abundant green outdoors facilities for sports and playing, and a well-balanced spatial distribution of services for its 230.000 inhabitants, 25% of which are students. The perception levels of security, leisure and relaxation environments, environmental care and community building in urban public spaces are high, and are proudly highlighted by dwellers and government officials alike. “We will do everything we can to defend this title,” said Groningen alderman Roeland van der Schaaf to AD newspaper, “because we are far from finished. The city has a lot of greenery, but not nearly enough. We have an enormous green task, also with a view to combating heat stress. Certainly in the city center and on our business parks.”

The 2020 City Health Index combined data on the 20 largest cities using sources from the RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment), GGD (Regional Municipal Health Services) and CBS (Statistics Netherlands). It is the first time that such analysis has been made on a national scale, and the rankings were produced according to five different criteria, which aggregated to define each city’s score: 1. Mobility; comprising cycling, walking, public transport and safety; 2. Infrastructure space; meaning spaciousness, cleanliness, services and healthcare; 3. Outdoor space; meaning green space and usable green space, playgrounds and sports facilities; 4. Environment; focusing on noise levels, particulate matter concentrations, nitrogen levels and heat stress; and 5. Community space; comprising safety perception and actual safety levels, stress recovery, movement incentives and meeting places in public space.

Although the data shows that these 20 Dutch cities are in general healthier than those in many other countries, the five biggest cities in the country did not make the top ten. Amongst them, the one with the highest score was Utrecht in position 12, followed by Eindhoven at number 13, Den Haag at 14, Amsterdam at 17 and Rotterdam in 19th place. Big cities tended to score higher for public transport and infrastructure, but much lower in environmental quality, security and green and community spaces, due in part to their larger areas and populations. For the time being, and until there is a new City Health Index in the future, Groningen will remain on top, above them all.

Written by Juan Alvarez Umbarila