Health in Unruly Environments

With the increased capability to accurately track and map data, epidemiologists, anthropologists, urban designers, and planners are building a more comprehensive understanding of how their individual academic domains intersect and the potential synergies that occur at those points of intersection that have the potential to transform both fields. Emergent health challenges, such as the novel coronavirus pandemic or climate change impacts, demonstrate that often failings in equity in our built environment translates into disproportionate distribution of negative impacts for the public health of certain communities.

In a recently released volume of Projections, authors from a variety of disciplines and fields explores practices of health in unruly environments with a specific focus on articulating lessons from already-existing practices of health for practitioners in the context of fields such as urban planning and public health. Projections is the journal of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). It is published by MIT Press and focuses on showcasing innovative research in the field of planning. Each volume of Projections is devoted to a different topic of interest to planning scholars, students, and professionals. The editors of the newest volume, Practices of Health in Unruly Environments, are Andrew Binet and Shin Bin Tan, both doctoral candidates at DUSP.

“Urban planners and practitioners in allied fields, such as public health, are grappling with how to create healthy human habitats within environments in constant flux. Often, we focus on the health outcomes of environmental changes, but it’s equally necessary to look at the ongoing practices adopted by those affected as they anticipate and respond to changes in the factors shaping health in their communities,” said Binet. “By doing so, we can understand how planners can support communities in their ongoing efforts to stay well.”

Articles in the volume include:
Uncertain Space: Data Illusions and the Landscape of Illness in the 21st Century by Sara Jensen Carr, demonstrates how disease mapping guided the decisions informing our built environment and how the contextualization of space with disease has facilitated stigmatization of both marginalized communities and places.

Transdisciplinary Synthesis Research in Unruly Environments: Reflecting on a Case Study of Vulnerability & Urban Fishing in the American Gulf Coast by Lauren Drakopulos, Dustin Robertson, Sarita Panchang, Meghna N. Marjadi, Zach Koehn and Lian Guo, explores how transdisciplinary research can help break down disciplinary silos in both research and policy, to enhance our understanding of complex environmental health issues.

Mobile Population-based Care Solutions from Canada and Finland by Laura Arpiainen and Johanna Lilius follows two case studies of mobile medical units utilized as an alternative means of healthcare provision in response to rapidly changing demographic and spatial challenges.

A Right to the City?: Harm Reduction as Urban Community Development and Social Inclusion by Marc Krupanski and Sarah Evans investigates a novel, holistic practice of community-based harm reduction around drug use which re-focuses efforts on the target population as people rather than identifying them as bodies needing treatment.

Planning for Youth Emotional Health in Unruly Environments: Bringing a Trauma Informed Community Building Lens to Therapeutic Planning by Jason Reece explores how trauma that is linked to challenging environments might be incorporated into planning practices and strategies.

“Although we came up with the theme of this volume of Projections long before the global spread of COVID-19, the current pandemic exemplifies the need for deep thinking around how planning practices should evolve to accommodate and facilitate health in times of deep uncertainty. The current pandemic has destabilized and disrupted established patterns of how we inhabit the built environment, and has raised challenging new questions about how the built environment can be planned and designed to protect and promote health in the face of emergent threats to health,” said Tan. “While this issue of Projections does not explicitly revolve around COVID-19, we believe the papers here explore different practices of health that can be adapted to unruly times like these.”


Image captions and credits:

Cholera Map of Paducah Kentucky from the Report to Congress on the Cholera Epidemic of 1873. Credit: 43rd Congress of the United States House of Representatives, 1875
A fresh produce market in Singapore, where people are wearing face masks as mandated by the government because of COVID-19. Credit: Shin Bin Tan
British Columbia’s two-truck mobile medical unit serving at-risk Canadian populations. Credit: Provincial Health Services Authority