What makes a healthy city?

Advocates around the world are using a USC Price professor’s research to make their cities healthier and more sustainable.

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis Geoff Boeing is part of an international team of researchers who recently published a series in The Lancet Global Health on how to create healthy and sustainable cities –  and how research can inform policies to improve public health.

The series couldn’t be timelier: Much of the urban growth over the next 30 years is predicted to occur in low-income and middle-income countries, which face harsher consequences of climate change and are disproportionately affected by health challenges including infectious diseases. Shortly after the series was published, The Lancet co-hosted two global launch events with the researchers, and over a dozen local events were held around the world with city leaders, researchers and health and sustainability advocates.

The Price Office of Communication recently sat down with Boeing to discuss The Lancet Global Health series, the “1,000 Cities Challenge” and what happens next.

Q: This research follows an earlier series of papers in The Lancet on healthy cities. Can you talk a little bit about the prior research and what’s new?

Back in 2016, The Lancet published a series looking at urban design, transport and health in cities around the world. One of the big takeaways was that we need a better evidence base to support cities that are well-designed and have good transportation policies and urban planning. But that evidence base is often hard to come by.

At this point, we know what healthy cities look like and how they’re performing for their citizenry. For example, we know cities in Europe tend to have better pedestrian accessibility, easier access to daily living needs and access to public open space than most American cities, which are characterized by sprawl, poor accessibility and car dependence.

But we also need better and more specific targets to hit. We have to put actual hard numbers on it to say, ‘If you do this, then we see this kind of relationship with physical activity and health.’

Our research tries to better understand what those targets might look like in 25 cities. We assessed whether cities are moving in the right direction to improve population health and reduce the factors contributing to climate change. And we created tools so other cities throughout the world can replicate these goals.

Q: If you were to create a recipe for a healthy, sustainable city, what ingredients would you need?

There’s a lot of geographic diversity around the world, along with different cultures, customs and forms of political governance. So, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all. But there are some invariant principles about what makes human beings healthy, like having access to healthy food, healthy air and physical activity. Being safe and having access to shelter – that’s essential.

When it comes to access to public open space, are there places for you to get outdoors to move around, get exercise and play with your children? Can you satisfy daily living needs without just sitting behind the wheel of your automobile?

While we’re not able to capture all aspects of what makes a city healthy, we were able to look at some of those specific public health aspects of it.

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis Geoff Boeing (Courtesy: Price School)