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Bridging disciplines through Urban Healthscapes

Published: 01 March 2024
A woman rides a bicycle in the city. Photo.

Urban Healthscapes is a useful concept to facilitate interdisciplinary research on health issues in urban settings. This was one of the key messages from a recent webinar arranged in collaboration between the research platforms SLU Future One Health and SLU Urban Futures.

The purpose of the webinar was to bring forward urban health issues from diverse perspectives with keynote speakers from veterinary science, landscape architecture and environmental psychology. The webinar covered a wide range of topics, from food security, nutrition and zoonotic diseases to discussions on ecosystem services, greening of cities and people’s experiences of urban environments.

Need for more interdisciplinary collaboration on urban greening and human health

One of the speakers was Theodore Eisenman, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, currently working at SLU as a visiting scholar.

"Different disciplines bring different perspectives to understanding links between urban landscapes and human health," said Eisenman, "and sometimes these differences can lead to different conclusions."

One example is urban trees and asthma. In an interdisciplinary review that Eisenman published in 2019, he and his colleagues found numerous studies from the environmental sciences suggesting a respiratory health benefit from more urban trees.

Yet, the coauthors of this review only found one study at the time showing empirical epidemiological evidence of such a benefit. Importantly, most of the public health research linking trees to respiratory illness highlighted the negative effects of trees’ pollen production upon asthma ‒ not benefits related to pollution reduction.

In an effort to understand how different disciplines can arrive at such different conclusions, Eisenman highlighted the importance of nomenclature (the language people use to talk about something) and epistemology (the way people seek to understand a phenomenon).

In the case of urban greening and human health, he noted that scholars with an environmental science background tend to use terms and methods associated with “ecosystem services,” “green infrastructure,” and “nature-based solutions,” whereas public health scholars and environmental psychologist tend to focus on “nature contact,” “nature experience,” and “nature exposure.”

Differences in nomenclature and research methods can create siloed conversations

He has also noted that differences in nomenclature and research methods can create siloed conversations, or disciplinary crosstalk – poor communication, unconscious misunderstandings, and inconsistent use of terms and literature between disciplines. These gaps illustrate the need for more interdisciplinary research on urban greening and human health and wellbeing.

Importantly, Eisenman reinforced that there is roughly three decades of research suggesting that proximity to trees and plants in urban settings can yield a wide range of beneficial human health outcomes, including but not limited to improved recovery after surgery, lower blood pressure, and better mental health such as reduced anxiety and depression. While the mechanisms explaining these benefits are complex, he noted that there is fairly consistent evidence pointing to short-term restorative benefits related to reduced stress.

Given the rising interest in urban greening today, Eisenman concluded by reinforcing the need for more interdisciplinary scholarship to understand how both the quantity and quality of greenspaces can yield optimal human health and wellbeing.

Distribute green and blue space in cities for health

Professor Lindsay J. McCunn is the Director of the Environmental Psychology Research Lab at Vancouver Island University in Canada and chairs the Environmental Psychology section of the Canadian Psychological Association. She is a former Chair of the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) and the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Environmental Psychology (and a recent Associate Editor for the Journal Cities & Health). She reflected on the term Urban Healthcapes.

"I think it’s a wonderful and interdisciplinary term that allows for a lot of intersection," she said.

She has seen a substantial increase in studies showing the benefits of nature on people and health, often situated in urban settings, or compared to an urban setting. The field of environmental neuroscience is now bringing in even more evidence for these benefits.

"Frequency of contact with nature has been shown to be very important for wellbeing. We need to explore how green and blue space can be distributed in cities for health," McCunn said.

"Parks and urban forests can affect our sense of social community, mental and physical health."

She also highlighted the need to include additional social scientific research about nature and health in architecture and urban planning curricula."

Sensory model can guide urban planners

Jonathan Stoltz, researcher in environmental psychology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU, focused on cognition and perception in relation to health and wellbeing, planning and design. He sees and increasing interest in nature as a health promoting aspect from a psychological perspective.

Jonathan Stoltz presented the Perceived sensory dimensions model (PSD), a theoretical model developed through research together with Patrik Grahn at SLU. The model aims to give a sense on how different features in the urban environment, like diversity, openness or naturalness, are being perceived and can be considered in the urban planning and design of green areas to support people’s basic needs.

"Some qualities tend to support restoration from a stress reduction perspective or, on the other hand, qualities that are more stimulating. The idea behind this model is also to visualize how these factors relate to each other," Jonathan Stoltz explained.

Great need for multidisciplinary research on urban food systems

Sofia Boqvist, Associate Professor in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences (SLU) and director of the AgriFoSe2030 programme, focused on challenges with food safety and food security related to the urban system in low-income countries. Her discussion on Urban Healthscapes focused on globalization, urbanization and how to secure food for a growing urban population.

"It’s about livelihood, well-being, nutrition and that people living in cities can buy the food they want and need. It’s also about zoonotic diseases that are transmitted between humans and animals, food-borne diseases and antimicrobial resistance, and why these health challenges are of particular risk in urban areas," Boqvist said.

She sees opportunities for more research in areas related to urban food systems, with a particular focus on urban livestock production. There is a need to work across disciplines using a One Health approach to solve some of the major food security challenges. This includes not only issues related directly to the urban food system, but also to factors linked to, for example, land use, demography, lifestyle, economy, and development.  The informal sector is an important component of urban food systems in most low- and middle-income countries and its contribution to food systems and food security should be better acknowledged.

"So there is a great potential to create new research links and more multidisciplinary research to solve some of the challenges we face when contributing to food securing for a growing urban population," Boqvist said.


Some key messages from the webinar:

  • By creating encounters between different disciplines that bring different perspectives to the topic of Urban Health and Urban Healthscapes, methods, gaps, and implications can be critically assessed and shared.

  • More inter- and multidisciplinary research is needed in the field of Urban Health to understand complex relationships and to integrate various expertise for improved impact and progress in different knowledge fields.

  • Urban Healthscapes is an evolving concept that could spark positive changes for contemporary research and practices for sustainable urban development by integrating various health perspective with a particular spatial dimension.

Urban Healthscapes:

Urban Healthscapes refers to the interrelations between humans and planetary health nested into urban environments and emphasizing the various conditions shaping human-nature relationships. The study of Urban Healthscapes aims to promote a holistic view of human health (mental, physical health and well-being) beyond the focus on disease. It explores the interplay between individual human experiences (e.g., physiology, emotions, cognition, behaviour) and the cultural, socio-economic and physical landscapes. Taking an Urban Healthscapes approach can contribute to understanding the complex links between health and sustainable and equitable urban development, e.g. exploring the different geographical qualities that explain inequalities and risk factors; the place-based experiences of a specific social group(s) that shed light on issues related to health. 

(Source: SLU Urban Futures, 2023 - developing urban research scapes

One Health:

The One Health approach addresses the interaction between animal, human, plant, environment and ecosystem health. This complex relationship requires an interdisciplinary approach and collaboration between veterinary medicine, epidemiology, ecology, animal husbandry, human medicine, behavioural science, economics and several other scientific disciplines. At the global level, the so-called quadripartite (FAO, UNEP, WHO and WOAH) aims to bring together sectors and agencies to address challenges that one of these cannot handle alone. At SLU, there is a broad competence within the One Health area.

Read more about One Health at the World Health Organization (WHO)


Watch the recorded session from the webinar Urban Health – Diverse perspectives on health in urban settings with keynote speakers Lindsay J. McCunn, Theodore Eisenman, Jonathan Stoltz and Sofia Boqvist. The webinar was organised by the platforms SLU Future One Health and SLU Urban Futures and moderated by Amanda Gabriel and Susanna Sternberg Lewerin.

Don’t miss the upcoming article series on Urban Heat by SLU Urban Futures on UrbanScapes

Read more about the platforms SLU Urban Futures and SLU Future One Health