A Public Health Lens on Climate and Cities

July 22, 2013

The Mailman School hosted a daylong seminar for the World Economic Forum Global Leadership Fellows on the intersection of climate change and health in the context of the city.

Dean Linda P. Fried explained how investments in bike lanes and hybrid taxis in New York City pay dividends for health and the environment.

A heat wave may not be the most pleasant time to visit New York City, but the extreme conditions may have helped drive home important lessons about climate change, urbanism, and health.

The three topics and the connections between them were the focus of a recent daylong seminar at the Mailman School organized for a cohort of budding business and policy leaders. It was the second year that the School introduced ideas in public health to the Global Leadership Fellows as part of a three-year Master’s program offered through the World Economic Forum. (Columbia’s School of the Arts, School of Continuing Education, and The Earth Institute hosted the group on separate days.) The WEF program couples leadership training with hands-on experience with industry, civil society, and global and regional governments. For much of the year, the Fellows work within these sectors to facilitate solutions to pressing issues. Among them, climate change.

As Mailman School Dean Linda P. Fried explained in her opening remarks, New York City provided an ideal test case for thinking about climate through the lens of health and the synergies possible by doing so. Citywide investments in bike lanes and hybrid taxis under Mayor Michael Bloomberg have paid dividends for both health and the environment by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Accounting for demographic changes like the aging population, she said, would extend these benefits further. Paying mind to the needs of the most vulnerable populations, including children and older adults, advances health and well being for everyone.

Profs. Lynn Freedman and Y. Claire Wang presented on urban slums and obesity policy, respectively.

“Cities shape the health of all of us. New York City and public health science provide models for understanding how to design future cities to optimize health, wellbeing, and mitigate climate change in shared interventions. Leaders in all sectors benefit from understanding these goals and principles,” said Dean Fried.

A quick-paced series of lectures and discussions gave the 20 or so Fellows an overview of a broad swath of the School’s scholarly thinking. In the morning, they got a crash course in the foundations of public health, followed by presentations on the health impacts of climate change, including research by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. Next they dove into aspects of urban health, from policies to combat obesity and promote healthy aging to the rights of slum-dwellers. A luncheon panel provided a window into issues of sustainable urban planning such as creating walkable neighborhoods. Systems-thinking was the order of the afternoon, as the Fellows took part in a group exercise to envision multi-sectorial solutions that took into account the needs of children and older adults. 

Global Leadership Fellows drew connections between climate and health with attention to the needs of the old and the young.

At the end of the day, the Fellows came away with a number of revelations.

Marius Hugo's mindset shifted on two topics: urban slums and the aging population. “Instead of viewing slums as an unwanted element in an otherwise prospering city, I saw that they might actually be integrated into the fabric of a more inclusive, larger socio-economic community," said Hugo, who engages with the African business community to increase their participation in the World Economic Forum. "Similarly, instead of marginalizing our aged population, society can rethink how this community may be able to actively contribute in a shared economy.”

The evidence linking air pollution and obesity stood out for Maxime Bernard, who works with the aviation industry. “The fact that chemicals in air pollution affect DNA and make children more obese—I didn’t see that one coming.”

Vanessa Cadeias, who spearheads the Forum’s Health Living initiative, pointed to the issue of community resilience, whether the challenge is a hurricane or heat wave. “Having a healthy population is one of the best indicators for a community’s ability to bounce back from catastrophe. That was an insightful moment.”

More photos of the seminar on Facebook.