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Making the Impossible Possible through Urban Health Collaboration: SALURBAL Project Shares Lessons Learned at the International Conference for Urban Health in Kampala, Uganda

Group photo of participants in SALURBAL workshop

Kampala, Uganda, November 30, 2018

When Salud Urbana en América Latina (SALURBAL) launched in April 2017 with the goal of creating an evidence base that could inform policies and interventions for healthier cities throughout Latin America this may have seemed like an impossible task. The project set out to convene a large group of interdisciplinary researchers across countries and universities that would span the diversity of areas and sectors whose actions influence health. Moreover, researchers sought to create a multi-level data platform corresponding to different measures of city social and physical environments. All of this was planned while simultaneously preparing for timely dissemination and engagement with key stakeholders, creating a communications strategy and website, organizing project events, and identifying opportunities for policy evaluations. 

As the project is approaching its third year, it has published its first manuscripts, held three systems modeling workshops with over fifty stakeholders, hosted three policy engagement events, one Knowledge-to-Policy forum, compiled data corresponding to 371 cities, and funded six ancillary policy evaluation studies. What once appeared impossible is starting to look achievable. 

This week, at the 2018 International Conference for Urban Health in Kampala, Uganda, SALURBAL team members had the chance to present their project and experiences with a global audience of international researchers and practitioners. During a half-day workshop held on November 26 titled “Making the Impossible Possible: Lessons learned (so far) from the SALURBAL project,” SALURBAL representatives facilitated a participatory session with nearly thirty participants mostly from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 

The workshop introduced SALURBAL’s four aims and prompted discussion and reflection around strategies and concrete tools that may be useful for building and managing networks for urban health research and policy translation in other parts of the global south. After learning about SALURBAL’s organizational structure, coordination, and internal communication channels, including its relationship to the Urban Health Network for Latin America and the Caribbean, participants exchanged stories of challenges and successes in their own organizations. SALURBAL researchers gave an overview of their process for creating a data platform, which spurred discussion about methods for characterizing cities and relevant research questions. Presentations on SALURBAL’s use of innovative methods for data collection such as mobile and GPS applications for data collection, wearable devices to measure physical activity or air pollution, or virtual audits of available street view images, sparked interest and enthusiasm. The session ended with a segment on systems thinking and urban health, which tied together the project’s many activities under a framework that considers all the interrelated features and actions in urban environments that drive health. 

While urban health issues may be complex, interdisciplinary and international collaborations can help seemingly impossible tasks to become possible. Opportunities to learn from the experiences of others in similar contexts and to use developing methods can help to capture the dynamic features of urban environments and identify important links to health. In Latin America and similar settings worldwide, innovative techniques and new partnerships may lead the way towards research with the potential to inform policies and interventions to design and sustain healthier cities. Every step of the way, building networks for collaboration, research dissemination, and policy translation will bring us one step closer to better health and health equity for all. 

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