Redesigning Education

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.

Environmental and health risks: Survey results among children 5-15 years

91% not washing their hands after using the toilet
58% open defecation
63% complain of stomach aches and fever
29% children already had Malaria
31% children already diagnosed with Thyphoid, Diarrhoea
15% children fallen into the canal
84% children with minor injuries

A telling example of how pre-existing racial and class inequalities dictate the experience during lockdown is found in the urban health profile of Theophile Altuzarra, who explored the inequalities in the distribution of urban parks and green spaces in Quimper, France, and its impact on young people’s health.

From this urban health profile, we learned that the government’s restrictions on travelling further than a one kilometre radius for one hour during lockdown, disproportionately limited the access of young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods to open spaces that are often located in better-off areas which are more than one kilometre from their neighbourhood. Additionally, as observed in this urban health profile, some of the high-quality green spaces which are located more than one kilometre were left under-used.

Shy Shyantani explored an informal settlement alongside a canal in Kolkata, India, where the lack of sanitation and hygiene infrastructure causes severe health risk, especially to vulnerable members of the community: women and children. As Shy noted in the urban health profile she created, everyday health risks are the type of risks that disadvantaged and vulnerable people are permanently exposed to. In addition, neighbourhood effects related to poor sanitation, overcrowding, physical hazard, pollution, and poverty, keep them in an inevitable and eternal risk trap. Indeed, in informal settlements such as in Kolkata, the concepts of lockdown or working from home are not real options.

The opportunity to compare urban health profiles from different cities enabled us to better understand that what is needed now for urban dwellers, policy makers and experts is to focus on the flattening of the already existing curve of injustice in cities, since what we can see from the current published research and from our students’ urban health profiles is that the effect of Covide-19 varies depending on the strength of the welfare system including health, infrastructure and housing.

Aerial view of Nicosia, Cyprus

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.


Prof Haim Yacobi

Professor of Development Planning, The Bartlett Development Planning Unit

Dr Donald Brown

Lecturer in Urban Environmental Planning and Urban, Development Planning Unit

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