Urban Community and Health Equity Lab


The majority of the world’s population now resides in cities. As the world continues to urbanize many regions are faced with complex challenges such as climate change and environmental degradation; growing income inequality; forced migration of millions of families and children; segregation; and aging infrastructure. As big as these challenges are, we must seek solutions to address these urban realities.

In recent years, research has shown how certain ecological features of the built and social environments, such as good housing stock and equitable transportation, tend to decrease human vulnerability to adverse health outcomes, while others such as hazardous land use or low-quality housing increase those risks. The Urban Community and Health Equity Lab conducts applied research that brings leading academic professionals and practitioners together who are focused on improving the built environment, protecting ecological systems, and developing a circular economy, all of which can protect and promote the health and well-being of urban populations.

The Urban Community and Health Equity Lab is based in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) at Columbia University. The mission of the Urban Community and Health Equity Lab is to conduct interdisciplinary research to transform institutions, policies, and practices that cause health inequities, both domestically and internationally. Specifically, its research uses a social justice framework, and is at the intersection of architecture, law, public health, public policy, and urban planning.

The issues that we research broadly include a better understanding of how the built and natural environment, economy, and law and governance ameliorate or exacerbate health inequities. Through a series of real projects and engagements with communities in the United States as well as around the world, the Urban Community and Health Equity Lab is charged with identifying health-related risk factors in the urban built environment, proposing a wide-range of planning policies, strategies, and practices that influence institutional change and strengthen democratic processes which lead towards more sustainable and equitable regions.

Some of the areas our work touches upon, include the following:

  • Climate change, resiliency, and adaptation .
  • Environmental degradation
  • Food access and education
  • Housing
  • Income inequality
  • Mass incarceration
  • Segregation (income, gender, race)

Research Areas

Built/Natural Environment and Health:

This area of research analyzes the relationship between the built/natural environment and how it influences population health. Specifically, we are interested in understanding how housing, transportation, parks, open space, and the overall infrastructure within a metropolitan area affects health outcomes.

Current Projects

  • Housing and Health: This project explores the relationship between neighborhood change, displacement, and health across several cities in the United States, Europe, and South America. This area of research is interested in understanding broadly how housing costs and lack of affordable housing, changing neighborhood conditions within the central city, and commute time of metropolitan populations impact their health.

  • Disaster Management and Recovery in Chile: This project is in partnership with several government and academic institutions in Chile focused on three areas of research 1) urban sustainability and regional development; 2) citizen participation and democratic processes; and 3) rebuilding after a natural and human-made disaster.

Economy and Community Development

This area of research is interested in exploring how principles of the circular economy/urban sustainability may impact the quality of life and health of metropolitan populations. A key focus is on the effects of macro-level and micro-level economic, social, and political factors on the well-being of metropolitan populations and their neighborhood environments.

Current Projects

  • The Circular Economy and Food Systems: This is an interdisciplinary multi-phased project that explores the capacity for public school districts to implement environmentally sustainable school meal reform to address correctable poor health outcomes among low-income students. The research examines the application of a planning framework called Rethinking School Lunch (RSL) in varied local contexts. RSL is a ten-pronged approach to school meal reform premised on the idea that the quality of school food and student learning can be improved while also reducing the meal program’s environmental footprint and contributing to the local and regional economy. This research began in the Oakland Unified School District in California and has supported this District’s implementation of its program and its Health and Wellness strategies. During the fall of 2017, this work also grew to incorporate six more school districts statewide (in the Sacramento, San Diego, and Central Coast regions) to provide a snapshot of how six (6) school districts across the state, who are participating in the California Thursdays® Network, have contributed to a shift in their local food system by increasing procurement of California ingredients for school meals.

  • The Circular City: This project is an exploratory project building off the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s research on examining how cities can embed circular economy practices into their urban operations. Specifically, this project attempts to better understand the positive impacts of technological investments, policies, and practices around the built environment; urban mobility; and food systems.

Law and Governance

This research group is collectively engaged in research at the intersection of planning, environmental and land use law, and local government. The research group pursues engaged scholarship to advance the Lab's mission of promoting urban equity and to support informed policy making.

Current Projects

  • Examining Entitlement Timelines to Inform Policy and Process: Housing affordability in high-cost areas like the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York City has rightly received a great deal of attention by lawmakers, the press, academics, and residents within these communities. Important questions raised in this discussion are: What laws or regulations might impede housing construction in high-cost areas? What solutions might help reduce those barriers with a minimum impact on other important values, such as environmental protection, public participation, and equitable treatment of low-income communities of color? This phased empirical research project explores these questions in depth.

Dean Amale Andraos speaks with GSAPP Associate Professor Malo Hutson on the occasion of the launching of the Urban Community and Health Equity Lab. They discuss how housing and place affects residents’ health, day-to-day life, and sense of community – particularly for areas going through a neighborhood transformation. They also speak about how the benefits can be shared equitably between diverse communities as cities change, and how to move beyond the “paralysis of analysis.”

“So much of the built environment impacts our everyday lives and shapes the places that we live. The fundamental piece of my work is asking how does place matter: for your health, for economic opportunities, for education, for the environment – for all those things”
—Malo Hutson

Moira O’Neill featured in Just Food (Berkeley Food Institute)

To learn more about this episode, "Ecoliteracy: Teaching Children About the Origins of Food," please visit the Berkeley Food Institute.

Moira O’Neill featured in Just Food (Berkeley Food Institute)

To learn more about this episode, "Rethinking School Lunch: Health Equity," please visit the Berkeley Food Institute.

Research Team

Abby Anderson, Researcher

Abby Anderson is interested in exploring the intersection of sustainability, ecology, and urban planning. She wants to combine these disciplines to address climate change and promote human and environmental health in metro areas. She graduated from UC Berkeley in May 2017 with a degree in Molecular Environmental Biology and a minor in Sustainable Design. She has participated in and led research projects on the genomics and ecology of insects and spiders in Berkeley, Virginia, and Costa Rica, as well as researched deep-water sharks in the Bahamas. She wants to continue working both domestically and internationally, and develop equitable global initiatives that encourage environmental and economic sustainability. She hails from Shelburne, Vermont.

Rachael D. Cico, Urban Community and Health Equity Student Fellow

Rachael is a dual degree student, pursuing a Master of Public Health at the Mailman School of Public Health and a Master of Science in Urban Planning at GSAPP, concentrating in Sociomedical Sciences and Community and Economic Development. She holds a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Following her undergraduate studies, she stayed in Philadelphia as a teacher and eventually worked for a real estate company before coming to Columbia University. Through this work, Rachael was able to blend her interests in urban and economic development, education, social justice and civic engagement. Rachael’s interest in anchor institutions is grounded in her belief that these institutions, which are magnets for economic development, can have a large impact on urban development initiatives. Her Master’s thesis looks at how the collaboration between anchor institutions and communities is vital to building a more democratic, equitable and just society.

Maria Garces, Researcher

Since her early years in high school, she was influenced towards art and architecture related subjects together with economics, which led her to study Architecture at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica in Santiago, Chile. Six years of undergraduate studies helped her achieve high academic results and develop many skills she uses today together with expanding her interests towards the urban environment. After graduating and obtaining her professional degree, she dedicated myself to work alongside her parents in their architecture studio developing several housing projects and international competitions. After three years of professional work, she decided to pursue a Master’s degree and entered Columbia University in the city of New York to study Urban Planning at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Her expected graduation date is May 2018.

Alex Moscovitz, Urban Community and Health Equity Student Fellow

Alex is a dual degree Masters candidate in Public Health and Urban Planning at Columbia, concentrating in Built Environment and Environmental Health Sciences. Alex’s interests lie in how to adapt the built environment – including street, food and waste systems – in our cities to equitably serve human and environmental health in the face of climate change impacts. She received a BS/BA from Boston College in Environmental Geoscience and Sociology and throughout her undergrad worked on a project to implement a circular clean cookstove system in the Dominican Republic. After graduating she went on to be a Fulbright Scholar, researching barriers to food security in the DR. Since starting at Columbia, she has worked at the Regional Plan Association as a health and spatial planning intern and is currently writing her thesis on flood risk and adaptation investment in relation to social vulnerability.

Carolyn Swope, Urban Community and Health Equity Alumni

Carolyn graduated with a Masters of Public Health in Sociomedical Sciences, with a focus on social determinants of health. Her work at Columbia examined the relationship between housing and health equity, including smoke-free housing policy implementation in affordable housing and the health impacts of displacement. She has also worked with New York City government, including the Center for Health Equity and a community board, on the planning and implementation of community health initiatives in neighborhoods with a high burden of health disparities. Prior to graduate school, Carolyn served as a health care consultant on population health strategic planning topics.

Giulia Gualco-Nelson, JD, Associate Research Scholar

Giulia’s research focuses on environmental law and land use, urban planning, housing, and local government law. Her work examines the impact of local land use entitlement processes on residential development and the role of the state-level environmental regulation in securing environmental health outcomes for low-income communities living in proximity to highly trafficked freeway corridors. Giulia received her juris doctor, Order of the Coif, from the University of California, Berkeley Law in 2018 with a Certificate of Specialization in Environmental Law. Giulia was awarded the Thelen Marrin Prize for the highest academic standing at graduation, the Ellis J. Harmon Writing Prize in Environmental Law and Policy, and numerous Jurisprudence awards for academic excellence. Prior to law school, Giulia worked in affordable housing development in San Francisco.

Raine Robichaud, Researcher

Raine is interested in how school lunch programs can address food insecurity and increasing food access in low-income communities. Raine graduated from UC Berkeley in 2018 with a dual degree in Urban Studies and Latin American Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. She has previously completed mapping and reporting projects at Catalytic Communities and supported programs at Oasis Legal Services and Metro Blooms. In addition, she has years of experience teaching and working at art studios and community gardens.

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