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Urban health and sustainability for the built environment

Urban health is a growing research field combining disciplines across health, urban planning, geography and others to explore how the urban context effects health. As an urban planner attending the International Conference on Urban Health last weekend in San Francisco, I was excited to see such focus on the role that the built and natural environment play in health and wellbeing. Presenters were truly international, representing work in low, middle and high income countries and the vastly different challenges presented across these environments. I was really pleased to see frequent mention of efforts to involve cross-sector practitioners and recognition of the complexity of urban health systems.

The conference launched the new WHO/UN Habitat Global report on urban health: equitable, healthier cities for sustainable developmentA few other highlights for built environment practitioners:
  1. Maps! Data becomes instantly easier to communicate through maps. Although several researchers cautioned the audience not to see patterns where they don’t exist (a real danger in spatial data analysis), there was obviously a strong interest in overlaying data about health outcomes and the built environment. This helps engage non-health specialists and demonstrates how policy on housing, transport and other issues can impact health and wellbeing.
  2. Co-benefits: Designing sustainable buildings and cities can have many health benefits. This is increasingly recognised by urban design practitioners and developers. Some research highlights include the URGENCHE project (Urban Reduction of GHG Emissions in China and Europe) which analysed how city climate change policies impact on health and wellbeing.
  3. Systems thinking: Engineers are probably more familiar with systems science than design teams and planners, but we can all benefit from systems thinking. Multiple presenters spoke about the characteristics of dynamic complex systems: counterintuitive, nonlinear, and interconnected. Interesting research in this area was presented by Ana Diez Roux (on neighbourhoods, food access and air quality) and Philippa Howden-Chapman (on housing and co-benefits).
  4. Design: Many of the public health researchers talked about getting involved in design and/or planning processes in a consultancy role. The purpose was to help optimise built environment design for health or to incorporate health principles into planning processes. In many cases, health professionals were providing evidence via data and urban health indicators (in maps). One very interesting example is Gina Lovasi’s work in New York and Rio das Pedras.

One huge challenge for this field (from my perspective) was that there aren’t enough planners and designers involved. The conference was predominantly public health and medical researchers but there were a few urban planners and geographers who have specialised in this area. Urban planners, designers, architects and transport engineers (among others) are the professionals who will implement the outcomes of this research. The health researchers may need to reach out more to academics and practitioners in this field to ensure the interventions being studied are practical and realistic in the real world. I think this is happening slowly.

I attended this conference to present my research about how indicators address the complexity of urban health and inform policy and decision-makers. I was excited to see the range of research topics and very inspired to bring this back to our health cities programme at BRE. I’m staying on in San Francisco to interview local public health and planning practitioners and explore how this city is dealing with challenges related to growth, affordable housing, transport and health.

A 'parklet' near Union Square in San Francisco, location of the 2016 International Conference on Urban Health.
A parklet near Union Square in San Francisco location of the 2016 International Conference on Urban Health

parklet sign san fran