Jun 26 2013
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Faces of the International Making Cities Livable Conference

This week’s International Making Cities Livable Conference brings together city officials, practitioners and scholars in architecture, urban design, planning, urban affairs, health, social sciences and the arts from around the world to share experience and ideas. We spoke with some of those diverse attendees to find out: what do they want the public health community to know about working across sectors to make communities healthier and more livable?

Alain Miguelez, City of Ottawa, Program Manager for Zoning, Neighbourhoods and Intensification Alain Miguelez, City of Ottawa, Program Manager for Zoning, Neighbourhoods and Intensification

Alain Miguelez, City of Ottawa, Program Manager for Zoning, Neighbourhoods and Intensification 

NewPublicHealth: What do you want public health to know about making communities more livable?

Miguelez: I want public health to know they’re at the heart of what we do. Usually urban planning is a pretty arcane thing. We’ve done a good job of making it tough for people to understand and relate to. They don’t have the patience. Public health brings it home. As we heard in a session this week, it’s not necessarily people who are disabled—it's the built environment that’s disabling. 

It comes down to how you see yourself functioning in your daily life. We've made it impossible to function any way other than with a car. For some people that’s okay, but for those who’ve had a taste of something different, there’s no going back. As planners people don't trust us anymore. We’ve done a lot of things in the name of progress. We’ve disconnected people from the built environment and forced them into places that make people fat and depressed and disconnected and not well-functioning. People coo about Portland and its trams and light rail and walkability. That’s how cities are supposed to be. Everywhere else has got to come up to that standard.

When you see statistics on obesity or depression, it becomes critical, especially with kids. I have two kids and I see very clearly how the environment we build around us impacts how they grow up. It gives kids the tools to function as independent human beings. The right type of city building and suburban repair [with an eye toward public health] can do that.

Bianca Shulaker, Trust for Public Land Research Coordinator Bianca Shulaker, Trust for Public Land Research Coordinator

Bianca Shulaker, Trust for Public Land Research Coordinator and master planning student at University of Southern California

NewPublicHealth: What do you want public health to know about making communities more livable?

Shulaker: Public health has a very important role in the planning process and decisions could really benefit from the knowledge public health has in contextual data, evaluation and metrics. Public health can collect and interpret data that’s essential to identifying solutions that are cost-effective and have a strong, positive impact. They can also ensure planning departments are incorporating health into their decisions, and incorporating data to evaluate how our built environment impacts people’s lives and behaviors and lifestyles. That partnership can be really valuable.

I recently worked on a study for the Trust for Public Land, as part of the Bay Area Parks for People Program, in collaboration with the RAND Corporation and the San Francisco Department of Public Health program on sustainability, health and equity. The partners worked together to generate designs for active parks that were well-used and support physical activity, and we evaluated the impacts of park renovations. The project exemplified the benefits of this kind of cross-sector partnership because public health informed both the goals and the process for the study. You need to know your goal of the project and what metrics are important. A lot of planning departments don’t have that expertise. Through planning and public health partnerships we can create healthier places through that cross-sector capacity-building.

Patricia Rios Cabello, Arch, PhD, Urban and Social Studies Professional Patricia Rios Cabello, Arch, PhD, Urban and Social Studies Professional

Patricia Rios Cabello, Arch, PhD, Urban and Social Studies Professional, with a focus on public space design and sustainable urban parks

NewPublicHealth: What do you want public health to know about making communities more livable?

Cabello: In Mexico there’s a great gap between public health and what parks might symbolize. Whenever you talk about how parks can have an impact on health—stress levels go down, you can concentrate better, after just a 10 minute break in nature you can be more efficient at work, they encourage physical activity to reduce obesity and diabetes—people in Mexico tend to discount those benefits. We’re not having the same kind of problems as the United States and as a result public institutions don’t believe that parks can help. We’re dealing more with infectious diseases, HIV and respiratory infections than with chronic disease. The prevalence of overweight people and obesity is starting to grow but it hasn’t reached the same levels as in the United States. Since we’re not a country with a prevention focus, it seems they’re going to wait until it reaches that level before doing anything about it. We need to start seeing the design of the city as a preventive tool to decrease the incidence of disease. We’ve got the space. We’ve got the weather, and people who want to be social in outdoor, natural spaces. Those are all wonderful elements that would enhance parks as a part of a healthy community.

Tags: Built Environment and Health, Community Development, Environment, Faces of Public Health, Green Space, Prevention