My research focuses on the connection between the built environment and human health, with a specific focus on developing a place-based approach to health and resilience across the lifespan. I have been working on two research streams to push the boundary of interdisciplinary urban health research.
One stream is related to applying the concept of “cities as data” to understand cities as invisible grids and overlapping networks made up of vast quantities of data from sensors to crowdsourcing platforms. Another stream uses “cities as a living lab” to assess the impact and effectiveness of place-based approaches to addressing the wider determinants of health inequalities.
My goal is to bridge urban planning and public health to develop an urban-scale data platform and evaluation framework to help tackle challenges related to chronic diseases and emerging infectious diseases.
Key Research Questions
My research is highly interdisciplinary and guided by the social ecological model that provides the framework for understanding the multiple levels of a social system and interactions between individuals and the environment. Methodologically, I use experimental research design and spatiotemporal modelling to visualize and understand the relationships between the built environment and health. With this theoretical and methodological framework, I focus on the following key research questions:
How do urban and transportation infrastructures influence travel & health behaviours?
Do urbanization and compact development exacerbate or mitigate environmental health risks?
How can we leverage different methods for undertaking natural experiments in local contexts?
FEATURED RESEARCH STORY
How bad is construction noise in your neighborhood? And what can we do about it?
If you live in a city center, you will probably hear lots of noise. If the city you live in is booming and growing, the chances are you will hear a lot of banging and drilling noises from all the construction activities. So you will wonder how bad this construction noise is, and what you can do about it.
To answer this question, we looked into a fascinating dataset of citizen complaints, called 311. Many mid to large cities maintain some form of a channel for their citizens to report complaints. A good thing about this system is that the data are being collected voluntarily almost in real time. We were able to extract noise-related complaints from this 311 data and pair them up with another fascinating data, called major projects inventory (MPI). MPI is a database of all the major constructions in British Columbia with an estimated capital cost of more than $20 million. We matched the data from 2011 to 2016 at the dissemination area level (close to a census blockgroup), and controlled for other covariates, such as sociodemographics.
The results were astounding. We found that neighborhood noise complaints were significantly associated with major constructions. A one unit increase in building construction was associated with a 6% increase in complaints. We also found that the relationship between construction and noise complaints were stronger during after-hours when people are sleeping.
Our research indicates that people are quite annoyed by construction activities in their neighborhood, and that people are more disturbed at night. The thing is.. almost every city has some kind of noise by-laws that restrict after-hours constructions, but our research suggests that people are still hearing construction noise at night. In turns out, there is some kind of a loop hole in the system. Developers can get away with this noise restriction by paying a special fee to allow after-hours construction.
We did a quick cursory search of similar exemptions in major cities in North America and found that the exception fees typically range between $0 and $500. Because completing the project ahead of the schedule (or catching up after expensive delays) can significantly reduce construction costs, most developers may not see this additional cost of exemption fee as a significant barrier.
So what does this leave us? The noise by-laws give an illusion that the city government restricts construction activities at night, when in fact, after-hours constructions are still happening. Should we then absolutely ban construction activities at night? Well, there is a shortage of supply in buildings in many big cities, especially those for housing. So putting stricter limits on building construction may lead to further under-supply of buildings when they are needed the most. Still, I find that the current exception fees are just too low. Maybe it's time to demand the city government to restructure the exception fee program and start monitoring levels of construction noise. Otherwise, this construction noise problem will never go away by itself.
Pre-print is available at: https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/yc2h8