For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

Inaugural Symposium Explores How to Improve Urban Health

By Amy Confair, MPH


September 16, 2015

“Cities are growing worldwide. City living presents many health challenges but also opportunities to improve the health of millions. Cities are also marked by pronounced health inequalities. Addressing these inequalities is key not only to improve population health overall but also to ensure the moral imperative of health as a human right.” - Ana Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH, Dean, Drexel University School of Public Health

On September 10-11, 2015, the Drexel School of Public Health hosted its inaugural symposium, “Reimagining Health in Cities: New Directions in Urban Health Research and Action.” The event brought together researchers, practitioners, and policy makers from around the globe to energize action around urban health, generate novel research ideas, and stimulate debate on policy implications and future directions. Attendees heard from 29 speakers and 60 additional projects were featured in an evening poster session exhibiting work from urban health programs around the world.

Watch speaker presentations on YouTube

View social media coverage of "Reimagining Health In Cities 2015" on Storify

Event Program

List of Poster Presentations

Speakers and participants sparked a lively discussion on how public health researchers can impact practice and policy in urban settings. The symposium began with the health commissioners from Philadelphia-Dr. James Buehler, New York-Dr. Mary Bassett, and Baltimore-Dr. Leana Wen, joined by Dr. Mitchell Katz, Director of the Los Angeles County Dept. of Health Services, Dr. Carlos Santos-Burgoa from the Panamerican Health Organization and George Washington University provided an international perspective. Panelists discussed the major health challenges facing cities today including health disparities and homelessness, the critical role of places and neighborhoods, and the importance of multisectoral engagement, including engaging the health care system. All speakers highlighted the importance of partnerships and of building direct links between academic research and training and the world of public health practice and policy.

A theme that emerged throughout the symposium was policy makers’ need for practical data to inform their decisions and evaluate the impact of actions and policies that they implement. Speakers, including Mark Dredze from Johns Hopkins and Daniel O’Brien from Northeastern University, shared novel uses of social media data and electronic health records to monitor health in cities and the utility of ecometric approaches to create novel neighborhood level metrics derived from the wealth of data now being collected by cities for various purposes.

Martin Sepúlveda from IBM Corporation, discussed the challenges and opportunities created by real time data now available through various smart city initiatives. Other speakers discussed novel methodologic approaches that can be used to understand the drivers of urban health and identify effective policies, including mixed methods (Stephen Lankenau, Drexel), natural experiments (Sam Harper, McGill), participatory model building (Kristin Hasmiller Lich, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and the tools of complex systems (Magdalena Cerdá from University of California – Davis and Douglas Luke from Washington University in St. Louis).

The need for cross-disciplinary collaboration was emphasized throughout the symposium as a way to confront complicated, interrelated issues to improve urban health. In two keynotes during the session on “Urban planning and public heath, where have we been and where are we going”, Dr. Howard Frumkin (University of Washington) and Dr. Daniel Rodriquez (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) discussed challenges ahead from the perspectives of public health and urban planning respectively. Frumkin empathized the importance of thinking about health broadly from a planning perspective and called for increasing interdisciplinary training programs. Rodriguez discussed recent trends in urban and transport planning and emphasized the importance of intervening in policy is during the implementation phase. After a policy is enacted, it can be carried out and enforced in a variety of ways. It is at this practical step in the process where insight from scientific experts can make all the difference. For example, the way traffic safety (including complete streets policies and bike share programs) and housing development policies are enforced can greatly affect their impact.

In the concluding session, focused on community engagement and policy linkages, Dr. Giridhar Mallya, Director of Policy and Planning for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, gave local examples of successful policy-related research - the City’s partnership with Dr. Ann Klassen, Dept. of Community Health and Prevention, who led an evaluation of the impact of smoking in public housing that provided evidence for the Housing Authority in considering smoke-free policies and the collaboration with Amy Auchincloss from Drexel’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics to evaluate the role of menu labeling. Dr. Sabrina McCormick (George Washington University) used the example of climate change to discuss the data needs of cities and the types of evidence most relevant to policy. Billie Giles-Corti from the Center for a Livable Future in Melbourne Australia commented on the experience in Australia and noted the importance of understanding the evidence needs of policy makers that might not be focused on heath. Amy Carroll-Scott (Drexel) highlighted the importance of community engagement in all stages of the research and policy process.

The symposium also included 60 posters from the United States, and countries all over the world. Participants left energized and excited about the possibilities and opportunities ahead in improving heath in cities worldwide through research, policy, and novel partnerships.