Students Fill Key Research Roles in Two Major Projects

The Health and Places Initiative—a joint project between the GSD and the Harvard School of Public Health—and a wide ranging project on housing policies in Mexico are 2 major research efforts moving forward under the leadership of UPD faculty with important contributions from MUP students.

Wei Li (MUP’14) and Heidi Cho and Joyce Lee (both MUP’15) are student assistants for HAPI, a project whose goal is to create a better understanding of the multiple issues facing cities in light of rapid urbanization and an aging population, worldwide but with a particular focus on China. Ann Forsyth (professor of urban planning) is a principal investigator. The student assistants have been conducting an extensive literature review on health factors like food access, air quality, and physical activity, as well as looking into design guidelines and health impact assessment tools that can be applied to cities across the globe.

“So far, the research has not been entirely conclusive,” said Joyce Lee. “This just shows that a lot of general assumptions about places are not necessarily rooted in empirical evidence, and planners and designers should be wary about the context in which they are basing their decisions.” Lee said that her research has supplemented gaps in her coursework, and she’s already applying lessons she’s learned to her core studio project. “Some of us are looking at potential flooding hazards as a guidepost for neighborhood design,” she said. 

“This project surely responds to the 21st-century challenge of global aging societies,” said Wei Li. “It’s also an interesting experience to learn from and work with Professor Forsyth and the whole team to dig into such a complex and intriguing issue.”

The Mexico project, headed by Forsyth and Diane Davis (professor of urbanism and development), grew out of a new commitment by the Mexican government to dense, sustainable and affordable urban housing. This multifaceted project includes planning, research, capacity-building and educational components, including three planning and design studios at the GSD. Jennifer Min Lee (MUP’14) and Kate Casey, Erica Blonde, Sophia Viguri Gomez, and Margaret Scott (all MUP’15) are student assistants.

In addition to being part of the research team, Jennifer Lee is in a related studio led by Davis and Jose Castillo (design critic). In both capacities, she’s looking at the city of Tlalnepantla, outside Mexico City. “For studio I’m interested in working on the challenge of redensification in a city that is already urban and has limits to infill development or to expanding,” she said. Her research work involves analyzing GIS data of empty or abandoned housing parcels throughout the city.

“I think their housing delivery system is fascinating,” said Lee. “Compared to the US, I think Mexico has done a commendable job in creating low-income housing, something which our own country struggles to do.”