How to teach urban health during lockdown
When the pandemic prevented staff and students from the Development Planning Unit from travelling, they turned their seminar space into a global urban laboratory.
Our work on the MSc Heath in Urban Development is based on a deep engagement with partners and communities in cities in the Global South, as is our teaching philosophy and our research. Last year’s restrictions on travelling forced us, and our students, to develop alternative ways of teaching and thinking about pedagogy.
The lockdown also compelled us to reflect on how urban health can be taught in the context of the broader shift to online means of teaching, research and public engagement in an increasingly digital world – a world that will be imperative for tackling climate change, future pandemics and other global public health challenges in the 21st century.
Already at the very opening of the academic year in September 2020, we decided to turn our challenge into an advantage – turning our seminar space in the Development Planning Unit into a global urban laboratory in which our students presented the cities they are located in including Istanbul, London and Shanghai, and then developed what we called an urban health profile, i.e. an in situ analysis of the urban spatial, social and political determinants of health.
Accentuating the personal experience of our students during lockdown in different cities enabled us to understand how Covid affects different societies. What we learned collectively is that the pandemic is preying on pre-existing health disparities in the Global South and North, especially in low-income and informal settings, and that communities (including the most affected) have taken on central roles in the response, particularly where the local state is absent, or worse, neglectful. Importantly, we explored how planning, policy and the design of urban spaces and infrastructure play a fundamental role in shaping health inequalities in cities, neighbourhoods and homes.
Our online engagement with students throughout the academic year was further challenged throughout our Overseas Practice Engagement (OPE), namely our virtual fieldwork in the divided city of Nicosia in Cyprus. This year, the OPE aimed to explore the effect of political and spatial division of the city on the health of urban dwellers. Here, our ongoing, long and mutual partnership with colleagues in Nicosia enabled us to conduct some primary research and to host experts from the field of health, planning and development to discuss issues that the specific condition of that city prompted.
Despite the difficulties, the studying process was still valuable. One of our students, Jessica Beagley, who worked on the effect of transportation and mobility on health in Southern Nicosia was still able to make the following astute observation: “There is no silver bullet to reorient Nicosia’s transport system. A whole battery of interventions is needed to dismantle half a century of increasingly entrenched priorities and habits, which will succeed only with the utmost attention to the sociocultural environment in which they are to be implemented,” she said.
The current pandemic re-confirmed the main thesis of our programme which pushes forward the idea that there is a necessity in research and practice (planning, public policy, public health) to move from an exclusive clinical approach to health to a broad understanding that encompasses social and spatial aspects of the city that affect public health. The mutual study process with our students enforces the understanding that urban health justice is a proactive, trans-disciplinary field, seeking to contribute to the wellbeing of urban populations.
Critically also, the experience of online teaching has led us to recognise the value of retaining some degree of digital education. This shift will be imperative for our collective ability to tackle global climate change by reducing travel-related emissions. In this way, we do not see the pandemic as a reason to return to ‘normal’, but rather as an opportunity to equip ourselves with the technological and pedagogical tools necessary to intervene in an increasingly uncertain, inter-connected and risk-prone urban world.