A Top Funder Wants to Know: What Does an Urban Future Mean for Humanity's Well-Being?

Sao Paulo, Population 12 million

Sao Paulo, Population 12 million

More than half of the world’s population officially lives in cities, and that number is climbing. A 2014 U.N. report projected that number would reach 66 percent by 2050.

That means for most people in the world, urban built environments will set the stage for our well-being. As much as cities can improve quality of life, those working in environmental justice can attest that cities can also be polluted, poor, and unhealthy. 

So what will an increasingly urban planet mean for humanity’s well-being? 

That’s the question at the core of a five-year, $12 million research grant from the U.K.-based global funder the Wellcome Trust. The funding goes to an international team of researchers based at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, where Ana Diez Roux, dean of the School of Public Health, will lead an interdisciplinary study of how the governance, design, organization and environment of cities in Latin America affect residents' health. 

Why is a U.K. funder supporting a Philadelphia university to study Latin America? Wellcome is a global health research funder, sort of an analog to Gates in the U.S., and in 2015, it developed a priority program called Our Planet, Our Health to fund the science of how the physical world affects global human well-being. The Drexel-led study is one of four projects totaling about $36 million that the program recently awarded, its first major commitments since it launched. 

Other recipients include a look at how nature-based solutions can improve sanitation and the environment in Fiji and Indonesia, and the future health and environmental impacts of animal-sourced food, focusing on the UK.

Related: Millions to Explore How Environmental Changes Are Affecting Human Health

To focus on the health impacts of city living, look to the places that are ahead of the urbanization trend, and that includes Latin America. Currently 80 percent of Latin America’s population lives in cities, and it’s expected to be the most urbanized region on the planet by 2050. 

The winning research team actually includes faculty at 11 Latin American schools and three U.S. schools, and comes from a previous initiative on urban health in Latin America and the Caribbean, an international partnership based at Drexel.

So if you look at that price tag and think that’s a lot for one research project, this study is multinational in reach, studying hundreds of cities, and has nothing short of global implications, with Latin America as a microcosm of challenges all countries are facing.

One especially compelling element about this study is that it’s not simply looking at issues like testing water quality or access to food and recreation—worthy issues many environmental and health funders focus on. It’s interested in the very makeup of these cities, so-called “upstream determinants” like social policy and urban planning, and how they affect health. Many health funders in the U.S. are keenly interested in looking upstream, as we've reported, so there's likely to be a strong audience for this research in America's public health community. 

The study is also focusing on equity and sustainability in the same breath as health, because it’s impossible to think about health and cities without thinking about the environment and huge social disparities that emerge in city populations. 

“We need to think of these things as synergistic, and that is a key goal of the project,” said Diez Roux of sustainability and health. 

That’s something we’ve often noticed as funders look to city planning and infrastructure: Issues like economic justice, wellness, sustainability, food, even art and creativity are all highly intersectional and can’t easily be parsed—both a challenge and an opportunity for grantmakers.