June 4, 2009 — At the turn of the last century, urban planners and public health officials often worked hand-in-hand to improve public health by building better water and sewer infrastructure, addressing transportation issues and creating parks and open spaces.
But the two disciplines later drifted apart. Though the two fields have begun to re-converge over the last decade on the research level, they remain infrequent partners in the classroom.
Yet scientific evidence suggests that many chronic illnesses – including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, respiratory diseases and mental health, as well as infant and childhood health issues – are linked to the built environment.
To bridge the classroom gap between public health and planning professionals, Nisha Botchwey, an assistant professor in the University of Virginia's School of Architecture, created a Web site that defines a model interdisciplinary curriculum to address the health implications of the built environment.
The target audience is planning and public health faculty and students and those interested in continuing education in the convergence of the fields of health and the natural and built environment.
"The curriculum can be easily adaptable for use in schools of planning and public health," Botchwey said. "Students will be able to build fundamental knowledge across disciplines and develop skills to interact effectively across fields."
The idea for the Web site grew out of a course Botchwey first taught in 2004 that delved broadly into health and the built environment.
In 2007, Botchwey searched the Web for courses and programs at other institutions that integrated the two areas of study, and identified only six courses devoted to this intersection of the disciplines — planning and public health histories, health disparities, air and water quality, physical activity, social capital and mental health.
Botchwey collaborated with instructors in these courses to develop content, assignments and evaluations for the Web-based curriculum.
The focus of the Web site is to "illustrate how environmental approaches can reduce the incidence of diseases and stimulate an exchange of ideas and set the stage for continued collaboration across fields." Botchwey said.
The online curriculum outlines a semester of study that can be used in whole or part to address the topics in an interdisciplinary manner. Botchwey shaped the curriculum into a 15-week model course comprising four units, which follow content as well as active learning-centered approaches to the material. Readings, guest lectures, field-based assignments, data-collection activities and community involvement are structured to engage students in critical thinking, and to develop skills to address the issues as professional planners, public health practitioners and other related professionals.
"Unit 1: Planning and Public Health Foundations" focuses on developing an understanding of public health and planning history, its evolution and historical and current theories on the relationship between the built environment and public health.
"Unit 2: The Natural and Built Environment" is geared toward identification of contemporary features of the built environment, such as patterns of development, parks, public works projects, housing and transportation systems, that reflect past efforts to influence health. Methods developed by architects, urban planners, public health professionals, sociologists and anthropologists to address current health impacts of the built environment are also identified. Topics to be covered include air and water quality, land use, transportation, and environmental and health impact assessments.
"Unit 3: Vulnerable Populations and Health Disparities" is designed to explore issues related to mental health, social capital and environmental justice. The goal is to give students opportunities to learn about themselves and the context in which others operate, and to better integrate that understanding when evaluating differing built environments, socioeconomic positions, social and cultural backgrounds and health status.
"Unit 4: Health Policy and Global Impacts" focuses on sustainable planning, global warming and healthy housing.
For each unit, the Web site provides sample syllabi, lists of readings and course assignments, and links to related organizations, conferences and videos.
"The course curriculum provides the tools that allow for the lens of planning and place and the lens of public health professionals to be united in a common frame of analysis," Botchwey said.
The Web site was created with financial support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.