Western Mail Profiles: Dr Yi Gong

‘Design of our living space is a health issue’

Dr Yi Gong is a research fellow at Cardiff University and is currently investigating the influence of the environment we are living in on our health.

Dr Yi Gong discusses her research linking public health and urban planning

THE historical connection between public health and urban planning can be dated back to the sanitary movement to prevent outbreaks of infectious disease, such as cholera and tuberculosis, in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

However, through much of the 20th century, the two areas have drifted apart, with different outlooks and goals. Public health focused on biological mechanisms of illness and disease, while planning focused on economic development.

In the 21st century we are beginning to realise that this separation had negative consequences for our health, for example, contributing to modern public health crises such as obesity, depression and asthma.

How places are designed and built is one of the major determinants of the health of individuals and whole populations, and of health inequalities.

Walking and cycling can be seen in places that are well designed and connected, which is directly related to higher levels of physical activity, and less traffic, air and noise pollution.

Although this conclusion can seem self-evident, our understanding of the detail is still limited.

My research is trying to understand the relationships between place, behaviour and health. The puzzle is how to maximise health benefits when areas of trade off need to be considered.

For example, having shops and green space within walking distance is one way to tackle the obesity epidemic.

However, while sprawling suburban cul-de-sacs do not always provide this access, this design protects the neighbourhood residents from traffic and can also encourage social interactions and strengthen the sense of belonging, which will positively influence mental health and wellbeing.

The second dilemma is that the design of a place may have health benefits for some people, but not everyone.

As an example of my recent work, living in a greener neighbourhood was found to be related to more frequent participation in physical activities among older adults in Caerphilly, but only among those with limited physical ability in walking or mobility.

Assuming that this relationship was due to the fact people are more likely to walk, exercise and do gardening in a greener environment, neighbourhood green space provision here may have an important role in supporting and maintaining active ageing for those with limited mobility.

The goal of my research then is to be able to produce robust research evidence that informs planners how best to maximise health benefits when designing and modifying the environment.

To achieve this, public health and planning needs to be reconnected.

Putting health at the centre of planning strategies and policy means that the modification of the place we are living in is not at the cost of our health.

The re-convergence between urban planning and public health is at an early stage and much more needs to be done.

To contact Dr Gong email GongY2@cardiff.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on 4th March 2013, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.