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Urban Health Collaborative Connects Globally Through Research

February 14, 2018

Within Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health, the Urban Health Collaborative (UHC) works on both global and local projects focused on improving health in cities and addressing health disparities. The UHC conducts research on the drivers of population health, works to evaluate and identify policies to improve health, and engages with communities and stakeholders to disseminate and promote public awareness and action. Currently, the UHC is conducting research both locally in areas such as the West Philadelphia Promise Zone and internationally through research collaborations. One of the largest projects led by the UHC is the Salud Urbana en America Latina or "Urban Health in Latin America" (SALURBAL) project, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust. Researchers on the project hope to learn from cities in Latin America about how other urban areas can become healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable.

Through projects like SALURBAL, researchers work together to examine urban health environments and identify and evaluate policies to improve health in cities. Claire Slesinski, project manager for SALURBAL, said project researchers hope to help policymakers and stakeholders make smarter decisions. As a first step, SALURBAL researchers are gathering pre-existing data. This includes physical data, such as population density, transportation infrastructure, access to mass transit, availability of healthy food, and air pollution, as well as data about the social environment, such as rates of crime, poverty, violence, and segregation. This data is linked to specific neighborhoods and city segments, along with data related to health outcomes. Using census records, health survey data, and data from satellites and Google Maps, the researchers have collected this information on about 370 cities in Latin America. After collecting and analyzing this data, researchers will be able to use it to ask and answer questions about how urban environments impact health outcomes in Latin America.

Researchers are also looking at specific urban policies and projects to assess their impact on health, equity, and sustainability. One policy area that is evaluated is transportation, specifically the unique mass transit systems in Latin America – such as the TransMiCable cable car that will soon connect areas outside of Bogotá with the city center. This new transportation system will allow people from neighborhoods outside of Bogotá with higher rates of poverty and crime to enter the city in about 10 minutes, as opposed to the hour that it currently takes. TransMiCable will give the people from these neighborhoods new opportunities to access services, connect them to greater resources, and provide them access to more employment options. Other relevant policy areas researchers are examining throughout Latin America include housing (for instance, investigating if it would be more beneficial to build new housing or improve the existing housing in slums and informal settlements) and food environments (such as implementing sugary beverage taxes and food labeling laws identifying unhealthy foods).

Putting the two together, SALURBAL explores the direct and indirect outcomes of these policies and interventions through systems thinking and simulation modeling. The assessment of outcomes expands on the evaluation of policies by taking into consideration the potential effects of intervention on health and sustainability. An example of this type of assessment would be the installation of a bike lane. Some immediate outcomes include that more people can ride bikes, which cuts down on pollution and improves cardiovascular health. On the converse side, there could be indirect chains of impacts, including an increase in injuries sustained by people who are not as experienced at bike riding and an increase in accidents, as well as an increase in commute time which could reduce bike riders' ability to cook healthy meals or spend time with their families. SALURBAL is working with systems modeling specialists to identify these indirect effects for select transport and food policies.

Once SALURBAL researchers begin to produce results, they will be packaged in a way that will be actionable for policymakers and stakeholders. Slesinski stresses researchers at SALURBAL are “not doing research for the sake of research, but to allow people to make policy changes that can help improve health, equity, and sustainability.” SALURBAL uses online resources, like their website and social media, as well as print materials, events, networking, and one-on-one engagement to partner with others in Latin America and connect with policymakers on national, regional, and local levels. Through partners at the UN’s International Institute for Global Health, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and through the UHC's leadership within the Urban Health Network for Latin America and the Caribbean, SALURBAL has been able to connect people interested in research or work related to urban and public health in Latin America to share information on the topic and provide a platform for disseminating research results.

In addition to research, the UHC provides training programs for people interested in urban health. Katie Livengood, project manager for the UHC, explained that the UHC aims to train the next generation of practitioners, scientists, and policymakers so that they can effectively intervene and address current and future public health challenges. This year, the UHC is hosting its third annual Summer Institute at the Dornsife School of Public Health from June 18 through 24, 2018. The Summer Institute offers short courses in urban health research and practice opportunities for students, researchers, public health and allied professionals. Early discounted registration is now open for the seven courses, each providing participants with opportunities and tools to improve and understand health in cities.

In addition, the UHC hosts a biannual symposium, talks from invited speakers, and bimonthly brown bag lunch series. The UHC also offers pilot funding open to faculty, postdoctoral fellows and doctoral students; urban health practicum funding; and funding opportunities for doctoral students in the Dornsife School of Public Health.

For more information about the UHC and how you can be involved, visit To learn more about the Urban Health Network for Latin America and the Caribbean, visit