Miller School Scientist Delivers Keynote Address on Link between Built Environment and Health

The physical environment built for human use, such as a neighborhood, city or suburb, has been found to have an impact on human health. Specifically, the “walkability” of an environment influences the weight, body mass index and chronic disease incidence of those who live there. Overweight and obesity are linked to whether we walk or drive, which in turn is linked to whether we live in walkable or non-walkable built environments. By rethinking our built environments, we can have a positive impact on human health.

That was the central message delivered by José Szapocznik, Ph.D., professor and Chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences and Director of the Miami Clinical and Translational Science Institute, when he gave the keynote address at the 20th International Congress of Biometeorology in Cleveland on September 29. The Congress was co-sponsored by the International Society of Biometeorology, an organization dedicated to the study of atmospheric processes and living organisms.

“The work of our UM team on built environment, behavior and health is very complementary to the work of biometeorological scientists interested in human health,” said Szapocznik. “I focused the talk on two aspects of our work that highlight this complementarity.

“One is that public health has a great concern over the use of cars, which is associated with higher weight and higher rates of obesity. Similarly, biometeorologists are concerned about the impact of cars on the atmosphere because of pollution and climate change.”

Szapocznik’s presentation, which was co-authored by Scott C. Brown, Ph.D., research assistant professor of public health sciences, described how car use increases when communities are built specifically around the car. It is possible, he told the audience, to dramatically reduce car use by building or rezoning communities in ways that make them more pedestrian-friendly. There is an opportunity, he said, for public health scientists and biometeorologists to collaborate in advocacy efforts for pedestrian-friendly environments that address both the problem of obesity and the impact of emissions on climate change.

“The second area I discussed is the vegetative index in a community,” said Szapocznik. “Dr. Brown’s research has found that the amount of green cover inversely predicts chronic diseases associated with obesity among 250,000 Medicare beneficiaries throughout Miami-Dade County. In a tropical environment like Miami, places with green canopies are much more conducive to walking when there is shade along a walking path. The vegetation absorbs much of the sun’s rays, and cools the environment through evaporation, making it much more pleasant to be outdoors in areas with a high vegetative index.”

This finding was of great interest to the biometeorologists, who also advocate green cover because of its beneficial effects on the atmosphere and on climate change.

“The purpose of my presentation was to build bridges between two fields that have very similar interests,” said Szapocznik. “Bringing public health and biometeorology together is truly a case in which the total is much greater than the sum of the parts.”

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