CAP Faculty Lead the Conversation on How Neighborhood Design Affects Public Health

June 28, 2023

When COVID-19 was elevated to a pandemic in 2020, public health took center stage in the media. Often biological factors and comorbidities were cited as the culprits for an individual’s increased risk of developing severe COVID-19. However, in May of 2020, the World Health Organization emphasized the importance of investing in urban planning by focusing on human and environmental health.

The Department of Urban and Regional Planning in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado Denver places fostering social justice, healthy communities, regional sustainability, and equitable urbanism at the forefront of its teaching and learning, which is evident in the work and research of its students, alumni, and faculty. A recent study involving faculty and students in the Urban and Regional Planning program exemplifies the ways in which the program promotes equitable and healthy cities.

Urban Planning Solutions Address Public Health Risks

In early 2021, an interdisciplinary research team of urban planners, medical doctors, and public health specialists intent on working together to better understand why some neighborhoods had much higher rates of hospitalization than those just blocks away began analyzing how the conditions of urban neighborhoods for different populations of people in Denver led to higher numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations, particularly within historically underserved populations. This work examined a cohort of 18,042 individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 between May 2020 through December 2020 in the Denver metro area.

On June 14, 2023, PLOS ONE published the study, “The neighborhood built environment and COVID-19 hospitalizations,” co-authored by Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Jeremy Németh and Assistant Professor of City and Metropolitan Planning at The University of Utah Alessandro Rigolon, along with CU Denver Master of Urban and Regional Planning students Brenn Anderson-Gregson and Ana Rae Miller, Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at CU Denver Priyanka deSouza, CU Anschutz’s Associate Professor of Medicine-Infectious Disease Brian Montague, Denver Health’s Dr. Cory Hussain, CU Medicine’s Dr. Kristine M. Erlandson, Specialist in Public Health and Infectious Disease at Denver Health Dr. Sarah E. Rowan.

The goals of the study were to understand how different physical features of neighborhoods might predict COVID-19 hospitalizations and for which racial/ethnic groups these differences matter the most. “Looking at the early maps of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Denver, we saw huge differences from one neighborhood to the next, with much higher rates along the I-25 and I-70 corridors and in the industrial areas of North Denver,” Németh explained. “These are the same areas that have experienced decades of disinvestment and increased industrial and automobile-borne air pollution due to redlining and other racist land use policies levied on our cities in the early 20th century. What is clear from our results is that although these policies no longer on the books, their legacies are incredibly long-lasting.”

The study found that, even when controlling for personal factors such as income, age, and comorbidities known to increase the risk of hospitalization from COVID-19, those living in neighborhoods with higher particulate matter (PM2.5) were significantly more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19. Higher PM2.5  levels, which are associated with industrial polluters, highway expansions, and lack of green space, have even stronger associations with hospitalization for Hispanic/Latinx individuals. The study also found that higher walkability and bikeability are linked to lower rates of hospitalization.

Németh summarizes, “Our results show that place matters in shaping risk for COVID-19 hospitalization. Therefore, urban planners can take measures to mitigate this risk by introducing pedestrian improvements, bike paths, green spaces, street trees, and other factors known to increase physical activity and decrease toxic pollutants and other respiratory pathogens.”

Mapping High Particulate Matter (PM2.5)

In addition to her contributions to the study published by PLOS ONE, Assistant Professor Priyanka deSouza’s research in air pollution aims to drive changes in public policy and examine inequalities in air pollution tracking technologies. Her research looks at new methods for using low-cost sensors and satellite data to understand concentrations of PM2.5 and the health impacts on vulnerable populations. This summer, deSouza purchased a Chevrolet Bolt EV, which will be equipped with low-cost air pollution sensors (costing between $100 and $1,000) to identify PM2.5 hotspots around the Denver area.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a network with air quality monitors around the U.S., but it’s a sparse network because each of those monitors costs about $100,000,” deSouza told Denver 9 News in a recent interview discussing how wildfire smoke increases levels of air pollution. “The goal is to really get a sense of traffic-related air pollutants in Denver, to understand the impacts of highways in the area, to understand the impacts of industrial facilities.”

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