Discussing planetary health at the International Conference on Urban Health, Xiamen, China

Emily GemmellBlog

We’ve just returned from Xiamen, an island off the coast of Southern China, where we attended the 2019 International Conference on Urban Health (ICUH), “People-Oriented Urbanisation: Transforming Cities for Health and Well-Being”. The conference brought more than 300 experts from 50 countries together and focused on cities as the main drivers for tackling the global sustainable development agenda. ICUH is the Annual Meeting of the International Society for Urban Health, committed to advancing knowledge sharing and collaboration among health researchers, policymakers, urban planners, architects, transportation and housing experts, environmentalists and other sectors together with government and business to advance urban health.

We presented our work from the Pathways project at a Wellcome Trust organised pre-conference workshop that featured projects funded through their Our Planet, Our Health (OPOH) scheme.

What did we experience and what did we get out of it?

  • Workshop

Prof. Paul Wilkinson (LSHTM) opened and closed the pre-conference workshop sessions, organized  around four main themes: data architecture for urban planetary health; building and managing interdisciplinary research teams; effective transdisciplinary research and maximizing real-world impacts. Group work and participatory games accompanied presentations from SHUE (Sustainable Healthy Urban Environments), SALURBAL (Salud Urbana en América Latina), RISE (Revitalising Informal Settlements and their Environments), Pathways (Pathways to Equitable Healthy Cities), CUSSH (Complex Urban Systems for Sustainability and Health), OPTIHOUSE and UPSTREAM (Moving Health Upstream In Urban Development) projects.

The workshop ice-breaker involved playing a game on decision-making for healthier cities: it got people moving and talking to each other and also had the advantage of highlighting from the start some of the key issues that are as true for our fictional game cities of “Utopia” or “Optimicity” as they are for some of the projects’ locations!

The overlaps across projects were evident in the presentations and the workshop offered us time to interact, link and learn from each other in a very informal way. Transdisciplinarity and co-production strongly came up as a key part of these projects and it was interesting to see how they were defined, interpreted, tackled and implemented.

Through the workshop sessions we explored common barriers and opportunities to overcome them through activities such as mind mapping concepts across different disciplines, exploring data availability and quality issues across different urban contexts or identifying key factors of control in each unique setting as a first step to maximizing real-world impact.

The interactive parts of the workshop were definitely the most stimulating and offered an opportunity to highlight the diversity of geographies, disciplines, backgrounds and ethnicities represented across these projects which, while adding a layer of complexity, give depth, breadth and richness to the research and its ability to impact.

Fangce: It was a great opportunity for me to work with other researchers from SALURBAL and RISE to organise the section of interdisciplinary management, initiate new connections, share research experience and understand the challenges in different countries with a lens of planetary health.

Emily: For me, the highlight was having the opportunity to present with UPSTREAM and CUSSH team members, getting to know their work and being able to compare the unique complexities of moving research to action across the contexts of London, Beijing, Accra and Vancouver.

Camilla: The Beijing meetings with Prof. Ying Long and Dr. Yuyang Zhang at Tsinghua University were extremely useful. They provided the opportunity to listen and learn a lot about the work that is being done on urban development and health across China and on the country’s history and trajectories. Our partners were patient enough to talk me through the unique mechanisms of land tenure, transport system, governance and policy opened discussions on how we can collaborate for continuous engagement and learning. These conversations highlighted advantages as well as challenges of our “one city at the time” approach; it will definitely lead to a broader conversation on breadth and depth of the co-production research and future actions.

  • Conference

It would be impossible to give even a partial account of such a large and rich conference, but two things really stuck from the plenary and parallel sessions. First, a broadly expressed necessity to consider human health as part of an ecosystem which includes but isn’t limited by it; the term “planetary consciousness” encompasses ideas of transdisciplinarity, systems thinking and complexity which are key in our current context. Second, the need for a stronger, explicit and efficient link between knowledge systems which include local or traditional knowledge to increase participation across sectors, disciplines and scales. This has been highlighted as being key in aligning civic participation and policy making as well as in improving physical and mental well-being of humans as part of a larger socio-ecological complex system. While these points may feel like old news, we believe the sessions showed that a lot of work still needs to be done in these areas to move toward a more equitable planetary health. These resonated with the co-production aspects of Pathways and generated discussions with colleagues and thinking of how to best adjust our course to focus on them even more within the project.

Next steps?

  • Further explore how transdisciplinarity and co-production are related
  • Foster new connections between and within Wellcome Trust projects
  • Play the “Temperature Check” game with students at King’s College London and Pathways researchers, maybe at the Vancouver Annual Meeting next year

This blog post was co-written by Camilla Audia, Emily Gemmell and Fangce Guo