Healthy Urban Sustainability Symposium in Shanghai

By Linda Powers Tomasso, Project Associate, Healthy Cities

What better backdrop for discussing healthy urban sustainability than a mega-city of 24 million, where the pace of urban growth and change has visibly and measurably impacted human and environmental health?  Suitably, Shanghai, China served as the host city for the Center for Health and the Global Environment’s (CHGE) May 17-18, 2016 symposium on “Building Leadership for Healthy Urban Sustainability,” held at the Harvard Center Shanghai, with sponsorship from the Harvard China Fund.  

One hundred attendees from all over the world gathered in Shanghai for our symposium on Healthy Urban Sustainability. Pictured: John Spengler, Linda Powers Tomasso, and Spiro Pollalis.

One hundred attendees hailing from a dozen countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe and 15 cities within China joined a core team of presenters from CHGE and the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) to examine the synergies among urban planning, building design, and public health for improved urban health and livability.       

Two dynamic days of symposium sessions showcased a variety of professional expertise and perspectives that built the case that healthy urbanism is premised on strong spatial planning, healthy building material specification, long-term climate resiliency, and enduring interaction with the natural environment. 

Day One: Planning for Urban Sustainability

Highlights from the first day included an introduction to the Envision Rating System for Sustainable Infrastructure and the Zofnass Planning Guidelines for Sustainable Cities by GSD’s Dr. Spiro Pollalis, Dr. Andreas Georgoulias, and Ms. Vicky Sagia. Building out the planning theme were presentations on “Healthy Cities, Sustainable Hinterlands: Cases from Asia” by Dr. Peter Cairns, a member of Future Cities Lab;  “How to Measure and Control Sustainability of the Built Environment in China: A Preliminary Study” by Professor Yinping Zhang from Tsinghua University; and “China’s sustainable Wuhan Eco-Town” by Steffian-Bradley architect Don Deng.

John Spengler, Director, and Linda Powers Tomasso, Project Associate for Healthy Cities, welcomed attendees hailing from a dozen countries around the world. 

Day Two: Focus on Urban Health

Dr. John Spengler, Director of CHGE, began the second day with China-centered research that grew out of the Health and Place Initiative, a joint project between the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and GSD. Dr. Gary Adamkiewicz, Director of CHGE’s Healthy Cities Program, presented “Housing, Neighborhoods and Health—New Research and Opportunities for Intervention,” based on research in Suzhou, China. Linda Powers Tomasso, Project Associate for CHGE’s Healthy Cities Program, centered the argument for China’s healthy future via a case study examination of Yueqing, China. 

Linda Powers Tomasso presenting on China's Healthy Future. Photo: Vicky Sagia.

Wide-ranging presentations on the outcome of building intent and structural design on human occupancy captured a variety of applied research: "Activity Behaviors Study of Older Adults in Public Housing Community in Shanghai by GPS Tracking," by Dr. Yu Yifan of Tongji University; “Health in Building Materials: The shift to Performance Based Design,” by Raefer Wallis, RESET; “Human Comfort Assessment in Urban Spaces,” by Dr. Jianxiang Huang from the University of Hong Kong; and the futuristic “Big Data Analytics Platform for Built Environment,” by Dr. Yi Jiang, Director of XIN Innovation Center at Tsinghua. Prof. Weimin Zhuang, Dean of School of Architecture at Tsinghua University, closed the symposium with his design of "Tibetan Yushu Post-Disaster Reconstruction: Architecture for a Responsible Future."

Reflections on the Symposium

This symposium offered an unusual opportunity for urban planners and infrastructure designers to hear from public health researchers within China and indoor air quality experts from Harvard, perspectives they normally do not encounter and to which they commented on receptively, and vice versa.  Evidence-based research appeared to be useful for non-academic sectors designing urban infrastructure.  The resulting cross-fertilization of ideas ranging from infrastructure design to big data platforms for engineering built environments conducive to healthier urbanism proved enlightening.  A few post-symposium comments bear this out:  

“I would like to thank you and your colleagues for the excellent organization of the Symposium and give you my very positive feedback since it has been inspiring to share my views with participants of the academic sectors, public administration and private practitioners, especially the participants from the Health sector have been very inspiring to me since this is still a discipline which is not widely involved in Urban Planning (unfortunately though).” 

Development sector participant, Spain

Similarly, participants from the health sector appreciated learning from the wider planning context presented at the symposium:

“This is a letter of thanks for inviting me to participate the Harvard Shanghai Symposium.  I learned a lot [from the two day] forum, beautifully crafted Power Point [presentations], sense of humor, brilliant ideas. I seem to feel the taste of Harvard. 

Academic sector participant, China

Additionally, the presence of some of China’s major developers at the symposium allowed CHGE and GSD teams to continue a conversation on healthier urban sustainability beyond the Harvard Center Shanghai.  Our hope is that the interest for improving population health for the fastest-growing urban arena will lead to applied research and insights into how the rural-urban transition can catalyze enhanced environmental and human health. 

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Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH

Aaron Bernstein is the Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics.

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