A new university program in Philadelphia aims to train medical students to think like city planners.
Deep beneath Philadelphia’s old Federal Reserve building in Center City, in a steel-encased former bank vault, JeffDESIGN students have been working at the intersection of medicine and design since November 2016. They spend their days 3D-printing models of jaws, mapping inefficiencies in hospital layouts and studying how to redesign urban spaces for public health. The 4,000-square-foot laboratory space is simply called The Vault. When I was there on a Friday morning late last year, Ku and I lounged on a couch in the back corner while students tinkered with 3D printers and teased Ku that they know more about The Vault’s technology than he does. Photos and mockups of various projects were plastered on walls and easels throughout the space.
One of those projects, smarterPLAY — they have a penchant for ALL CAPS — explored the way children play in parks, playgrounds and other public spaces. Last summer, JeffDESIGN researchers slapped sensors on groups of kids across Philadelphia and monitored them in a variety of locations, from the Waterloo Playground to the Whitman Branch of the Free Library. The goal was to see how exactly they used the spaces in an effort to understand how they might be redesigned to attract more people.
The data from smarterPLAY, as Next City reported in an op-ed last fall, “resulted in hundreds of hours of quantitative data about the physical activity and location of users, both indoors and out. The data is anonymous and helps create an accurate picture, down to a few centimeters, of where people go, how much time they spend there, how active they are and what interactions they have with equipment, site features or other people.”
It might seem trivial, monitoring the way kids use a jungle gym or gallivant across the pavement in the dead heat of summer. But parks — where they are and how they’re used — have a measurable effect on a neighborhood’s well-being. A 2016 study from Environmental Health Perspectives found that proximity to trees planted along streetscapes, parks and various other forms of “greenness” lowers mortality rates. And part of a 2011 report from The Trust For Public Land explored how important design is: “It may seem odd that design could be related to health, but it’s true: pleasing predictability encourages participation. If the basics are well provided, people will flock to the system and use it to the fullest.”
This is how Ku and his students in Philadelphia can have an impact on health outcomes, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.