Historical perspectives on public health

  • 2015•11•17     Kuala Lumpur

    A team from UNU-IIGH has received funding from the Wellcome Trust (UK) under its Seed Awards in the Medical Humanities. The interdisciplinary team comprises Katrina Proust, Fiona Williamson, José Siri, Barry Newell and Tony Capon. The title of the project is “Historical Perspectives on the Interplay between Public Health and Urban Planning in Penang, Malaysia”.

    The development of policies to improve urban health and mitigate risks is hampered by the loss of the traditional collaboration between public health and urban planning. This divergence was seen worldwide during the 20th century, suggesting a natural evolution, not contingent on local circumstances. This is consistent with the hypothesis that urban systems evolve naturally into polycentric structures, often with reduced communication between decision-making entities. The team will investigate this hypothesis using an innovative approach that blends historical research methods with concepts and tools from systems thinking and feedback dynamics. The project is designed to contribute to contemporary efforts to reunite the public health and urban planning professions, by investigating the social and environmental forces that drove their separation.

    George Town, Penang, is the site for the 12-month pilot study, which begins in January 2016. Penang, settled by the British in 1786, provides good historical resources associated with the Straits Settlements, and has links to current UNU-IIGH integrative health projects.

    Archival research will be undertaken to identify significant transitions in the relationship between urban health and planning from 1786 to 1986. The data will be analysed using a systems approach (a) to explain the drivers of change in the complex interactions between urban form, environment and health, and (b) to identify promising ways to rebuild the relationship between public health and urban planning. The project involves fundamental research into little-explored colonial records.

    The systems approach can be applied to health research in other cities. To this end the UNU-IIGH team will identify a network of scholars and governance groups interested in this type of integrative work.
    The team is particularly interested in places with colonial heritage.

    Anyone who is interested in becoming part of such a network can contact Katrina Proust at katrina.proust@anu.edu.au