Public Health Explainer: How Cities Shape Your Health

As increasing numbers of people live in cities, Mailman faculty are uncovering the ways our urban environments can make us healthier or sicker

June 18, 2018

From the air you breathe to your proximity to the local grocery store, everything around you impacts your health. And in a time when increasing numbers of people are living in cities—an estimated 70 percent of the world’s population will be city dwellers by 2050—researchers across the Mailman School are investigating the urban factors that make us healthier or sicker, from the streets of New York City to projects spanning the globe.

Faculty in the Mailman School’s Built Environment and Health Research Group (BEH) examine how urban design, retail environments, land use, and accessibility of public transportation shape aspects of our health—physical activity, diet and obesity, risk of pedestrian injury, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and more. One study by Andrew Rundle, DrPH, associate professor of Epidemiology, found people with diabetes are better able to control their blood sugar if they live in neighborhoods with resources that support healthy eating and physical activity. Other ongoing research by Rundle uses Google Street View to help locate pedestrian danger zones throughout New York City.

The quality of your urban surroundings plays a role in your safety and well being. According to research by Charles Branas, PhD, chair of the Department of Epidemiology, greening vacant lots and remediating urban blight leads to reduced gun violence and people feeling more connected to their community. “The key thing is changing people’s context, and we now have the strongest scientific evidence that changing the context is what really makes a difference in our health,” Branas says.

The Air You Breathe

No matter your age, urban air pollution, largely from automotive emissions, is bad news for your health. Andrea Baccarelli, MD, chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, examined the health risks in older populations, including cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. Meanwhile, an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) has followed a group of youngsters in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx since 1998 to understand the effects of early life exposures to urban pollutants on everything from asthma to behavioral problems to obesity. Armed with these findings, CCCEH community partner WE ACT successfully lobbied the New York City Transit Authority to switch city buses from diesel to electric, prioritizing disadvantaged neighborhoods uptown.

YOUR Home Environment

Even before we leave our front doors, our urban environment is a factor in our health. A study in New York City apartment buildings by Ian Lipkin, MD, and colleagues in the Center for Infection and Immunity found house mice carry bacteria responsible for mild to life-threatening gastroenteritis. Diana Hernandez, PhD, assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences, examines the uptake and enforcement of smoke-free policies in 12 local affordable housing developments. As a member of Columbia University’s Trauma-Free NYC initiative, Virginia Rauh, professor of Population and Family Health, works to prevent New York City children from being exposed to adversity and chronic stress, in and out of the home, that inflicts lasting damage on developing brains.

Policy Matters

Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, which vary by city, may make a difference in how you spend your grocery budget, as investigated by Y. Claire Wang, MD, associate professor of Health Policy and Management. Similarly, whether or not your area participates in menu calorie labeling might sway you to eat certain foods and not others, as Sociomedical Sciences professors James Colgrove, PhD, and Rachel Shelton, ScD, have described. Beyond food, Daniel Giovenco, PhD, also in Sociomedical Sciences, investigates the links between tobacco marketing and smoking rates.

Internationally too, faculty are active in advancing urban health. In Medellín, Columbia, Peter Muennig, MD, MPH, professor of Health Policy and Management, advised the city on a cable car system serving a low-income hillside community. In the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, Lynn Freedman, JD, MPH, professor of Population and Family Health, has investigated ways to improve access to maternal and newborn healthcare.

The urban environment shapes all aspects of health, from the chemicals and animals you are exposed to, the things you consume, your risk of getting into an accident or being subject to violence, and much more. At the Mailman School, researchers continue to learn what important transformative steps need to be taken to ensure our environment promotes healthy lives for all of us.