Jul. 16 2014
Davos to Harlem, Future Leaders Get Up-Close Look at Urban Health

The uptown bus was about to leave. A group of older adults, each with an infirmity of one kind or another, couldn’t get there fast enough. Such is life as a senior in the city.

In reality, not one of the would-be seniors was older than 40 or incapable of a quick sprint. And all were from out of town. They were Global Leadership Fellows from the World Economic Forum in Geneva taking part in a weeklong learning exercise in urban health organized by the Mailman School with the design consultancy IDEO.


Global Leadership Fellow Jessica Camus takes lessons from Harlem's seniors

In a morning session at Buell Hall on Columbia's Morningside campus, the fellows got an introduction to public health and design thinking. They learned from Dean Linda P. Fried about longevity gains and the responsibly of all sectors to contribute to health. In the coming decades, the Dean emphasized, urban health will become increasingly important. By the time the fellows reach the middle of their careers, upward of 60 percent of the world will live in cities.

Later the fellows split into groups, each led by a Mailman faculty member, and set out for a variety of neighborhoods to learn about health issues affecting elderly and low-income New Yorkers.

Ruth Finkelstein, associate director of the Columbia Aging Center, supplied her fellows with props to simulate various disabilities affecting the elderly. Vera Schneider from South Africa, for example, wore glasses smeared with Vaseline to give her a feel for having cataracts. Jessica Camus, who calls Germany home, carried a cane and wore earplugs to acquaint her with hearing loss.


After catching the next bus, the group set out for the Harlem Advocates for Seniors headquarters on West 140th Street. There they learned how local elders rallied to make Seventh Avenue safer by leading the community and the City Department of Transportation on group walks where they documented sidewalk fissures and other safety hazards.

Soon, the fellows were on their own tour. William Hamer, the 67-year-old chairman of the advocacy group, showed off the newly narrowed thoroughfare with its expanded pedestrian median.

Also much needed in Harlem are senior fitness and wellness centers, Hamer said. Adding these, could help preserve mobility.

Camus had a brainstorm. Why not install exercise equipment along sidewalks similar to what is seen in cities in China? This idea and others like better electronic signage on the buses would form the basis of a design concept that the group would present to experts at Mailman and IDEO at the end of the week.

At the final presentations, the six teams were surrounded by vision boards, sketches and mosaics of post-it notes, some reaching more than ten feet high. The dynamic environment fueled discussions about sustainable solutions that expand beyond pilot projects to larger communities in the New York City and around the world.


Finkelstein’s team presented a five-point framework for the aging population to stay mobile. Its anchor, the Senior Games— an Olympics-like competition—would be piloted in Harlem. While the primary focal point would be an event, the larger program would encourage older people to stay active year-round. Stationary bikes and other adult activities would be added to playgrounds, changing the built environment and inspiring competition.

The other teams also explored Upper Manhattan. Their interventions addressed urban health challenges from healthy food options to lack of recreational space.

For example, Harlem Buzz would promote an active lifestyle among the 18 to 29-year-old age group through a mix of brick and click tools, while Now & Then would design a mural program to celebrate the lives of older adults with Alzheimer’s.

These future leaders can take the experience with them and apply to their work with the World Economic Forum in Geneva and throughout their careers in cities around the world. It is the third year that the Mailman School has hosted the fellows, and the first with IDEO.