My research interests lie at the nexus of urban planning, transportation, and public health. I have been working on two research streams to push this interdisciplinary field forward:
One stream of research is related to applying the concept of "cities as data". I seek to understand cities as invisible grids and overlapping networks made up of vast quantities of data from wearable sensors and crowdsourcing platforms to understand the complex relationships between the built environment and health.
Another stream of research uses "cities as a living lab" to explore different methods for undertaking natural experiments in the local context. I seek to support innovation and co-design of urban spaces with various stakeholders towards building healthier and equitable communities.
My goal is to bridge the gap between urban planning and public health. I am actively collaborating with international experts, civic leaders, and policy makers to develop evidence-based policy solutions to a wide range of emerging health challenges linked to urban and transportation planning.
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 urbanisation and compact development exacerbate or mitigate environmental health risks?
How can we leverage different methods for undertaking natural experiments in the local context?
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.
This research is published in Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science: https://doi.org/10.1177/2399808318821112
Pre-print is available at: https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/yc2h8