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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 looks at how Chile has responded to an increased amount of natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, volcanoes, and landslides. It examines how effectively different government agencies, business interests, NGOs, and academic institutions collaborate to rebuild towns after disasters. In addition, the project explores the implementation of mitigation strategies to prepare for future disasters, and the social implications disasters have on communities. This project is in partnership with several government and academic institutions and aims to discover what lessons can be learned from past disasters to aid future disaster response within Chile, in the United States, and around the world.

  • School Food Environments and Health: 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.

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 study examines how school districts across California, all participating in the California Thursdays® Network, have contributed to a shift in their local food system by increasing procurement of California ingredients for school meal programs. It explores how these shifts in local procurement practices relate to the broader work of moving towards a circular economy.

  • 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.
Malo Hutson participates in conversation “An Unjust Burden: Climate Change and the Vulnerable”

The conversation, which was hosted by Columbia’s Earth Institute on November 17, 2020, included Belinda Archibong, Wolfram Schlenker, and Alex Halliday.
Malo Hutson participates in “Cities, Social Equity, and Pandemics in History” Roundtable

The “Cities, Social Equity, and Pandemics in History” Roundtable was organized by the Epidemic Urbanism Initiative (EUI) on August 1, 2020 in response to the current conversations and challenges with social and racial inequity in and beyond the United States, and to extend the dialog that emerged in the Initiative’s inaugural symposium about how epidemics exploit and amplify social inequities. Panelists include Dr. Ann Marie Akehurst, Dr. Malo Hutson, Dr. Edna Bonhomme, Dr. Daniela Sandler, and Dr. Carlo Trombino. The conversation is moderated by Dr. Ruth MacKay and Emily Webster.

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.

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