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Drexel Research Team Gets $12 Million Grant to Study Impact of Urban Living in Latin America

The grant from a British foundation will subsidize a study involving 11 Latin American and three U.S. institutions.

A Drexel academic is getting a $12 million grant to study the effects of urban life on the health of people in Latin American countries.

Ana Diez Roux, who is dean of the Dornsife School of Public Health, will head a collaborative undertaking the expansive study. The grant was announced by the British foundation Wellcome Trust as part of its Our Planet, Our Health initiative.

Diez Roux's team "will study how the governance, design, organization and environment of Latin American cities affect population health, as well as health inequities within cities," according to a report on Drexel's website.

That team spans 11 Latin American and three U.S. institutions.

Diez Roux's study is one of four that Wellcome is funding to look at global health in a future where population concentrations are changing, according to one of the foundation's medical officials.

"There are so many factors that need to be addressed if we are to create a healthy and sustainable future. These major research programs bring together collaborators from all over the world to explore how we can create health, not just prevent disease, while being responsible custodians of the planet," Dr. Sarah Molton of Wellcome said.

The environmental sustainability of cities will be key to Roux's research, considering a trend in the last decade of city population growth after decades of retrenchment. 

"This is critical because health and environmental sustainability are closely entwined,” Diez Roux said. “This is because the environment affects health — for example, levels of air pollution and heat have especially strong health impacts in cities —but many of the things we can do to make people healthier, like promoting active travel and consumption of fruits and vegetables, also have favorable implications for the environment. We need to think of these things as synergistic, and that is a key goal of the project."

She also said that studying many Latin American cities will likely find differences in health outcomes and that those differences could point to ways for improving overall urban health.

"I suspect we will find that cities vary quite a bit in health and health equity and that there are real things cities can do to improve the health of residents," Diez Roux said. "I also suspect that many of the most promising interventions and policies we find will focus on ‘upstream determinants’ and factors outside the traditional health sector — like social policy or urban planning."

Proponents and researchers of urban life believe younger generations are more likely to find aspects of cities more appealing than older generations. Americans, for example, migrated from cities to suburbs as the middle class expanded during prosperous periods following World War II and in the 1980s and 1990s.

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