Investigating How the Built Environment Impacts Health and Equality

by |August 14, 2018
Malo Hutson photo in front of tree

Malo Hutson studies the intersection of urban planning, sustainability, and health. He is an associate professor in urban planning at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and an Earth Institute faculty member. Photo: Sarah Fecht

Malo Hutson moved around a lot when he was a kid. His mother, who was 17 when she had him, hauled him and his sisters all over Southern California in search of good schools and safe neighborhoods. But because they didn’t have a lot of money, those safe suburban neighborhoods stranded them. Without a car, the family had a hard time getting groceries, getting to work, or seeing to their basic needs.

“Through moving around, I realized how environments matter,” Hutson says. “That really shaped who I was early on—being interested in the built environment, the environment itself, transportation, and how all these things are linked to people’s health and quality of life.”

Nowadays, Hutson is an associate professor in urban planning at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and an Earth Institute faculty member as of January 2018. The first person in his family to go to college, he studied at the University of California, Berkeley, then earned his PhD in urban planning from MIT. He was a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society scholar, and then a tenured associate professor and Chancellor’s Professor of City Planning at UC Berkeley before joining Columbia University in 2017.

A Cross-Cutting Perspective

Hutson studies the intersection of urban planning, sustainability, and health. This intersection is apparently a busy one, giving Hutson a diverse array of questions to explore. One, he says, is: “How does the built environment—meaning housing, infrastructure such as transportation, energy access, water—how do these things impact people’s health, on the most basic level?” Tied into this question are issues of racial segregation and inequality, both in the U.S. and beyond. As the world continues to urbanize, poorer people and people of color in particular are having to move further and further from city centers. Hutson’s research looks at how these people are surviving, how they secure education and jobs, and how displacement impacts their health, day-to-day lives, and environmental footprint. He investigates these issues and more in his most recent book, The Urban Struggle for Economic, Environmental and Social Justice.

Another facet of Hutson’s research—a project on disaster management and recovery in Chile—made him the recent recipient of a grant from the Columbia University President’s Global Innovation Fund. For the next three years, Hutson and his colleagues will study the challenges and opportunities that arise as Chile recovers from its worst-ever wildfire, which destroyed 1,000 homes and displaced 5,000 people in 2017. The team will investigate what roles the Chilean government, businesses, and NGOs can play in the recovery, as well as identify tools and organizational structures that can facilitate the process.

This work could have implications for how other nations cope with disasters, too, says Hutson, especially as the world warms, wildfires become more common, and storms become more intense. “What does this mean for how we build, where we build, and how we recover from that?” he asks.

In yet another line of work, Hutson is helping to improve food systems in California. He and his colleagues have examined the capacity of public school districts to bring locally grown food into school cafeterias. Through programs like this, California has an enormous opportunity to support its own economy while reducing the food system’s carbon footprint. The team’s findings directly support implementation of school meal reform in districts, like Oakland Unified School District, that are interested in advancing this work.

The wide range and interdisciplinary nature of Hutson’s work is one of the things that drew him to become part of the Earth Institute. “It connects you to a great group of researchers who are interested in many similar things, where you have cross-cutting themes across the Columbia campus,” he says. “That is a tremendous resource.”

It Gets Personal

Hutson says his upbringing has helped him understand the complexity of the issues he studies. Knowing what it’s like to not have access to public transit, healthy food, and social support gives him some insight into what questions to ask and what kinds of solutions might help.

Even though he strives to be as objective as possible, the work can take a toll on anyone’s emotions. “When you see young kids playing in toxic water because that’s the only place they have to play, that has an effect on you. When you travel abroad and you see people in informal settlements and they’re struggling to survive, it has an impact on you,” says Hutson. “The hardest part about working at intersection of health and development and sustainability is that people are dying.”

“The hardest part about working at intersection of health and development and sustainability is that people are dying.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, he says. These are manmade problems, and cities in particular are well-positioned to address issues like walkability, climate change mitigation, and access to healthy foods. “There are ways we can improve the quality of life for people in cities. It’s a matter of, are we willing to admit what the problems are and put money behind them?”

Too often, governmental responses are delayed by politics and bipartisanship. Visiting California this summer, Hutson observed a marked increase in the number of homeless people in the Bay Area since last year. And not just people who are mentally ill or using drugs, but a range of people and families who can’t afford their homes anymore. The main problem is that California isn’t building enough housing—especially affordable housing, says Hutson. “Yet it’s taking months and months just to get a housing bill on the table.”

Real-World Impacts

Researchers tend to be great at exploring problems and critiquing ideas. But to Hutson, it’s not enough to simply do great research and analysis; it’s also crucial to think of solutions. “That’s what the Earth Institute means to me,” he says. “To have this great group of colleagues who are working out in the real world to try to influence policy change and real practices on the ground, and transforming institutions, from the science laboratory all the way to the urban laboratory.”

Many of the achievements that Hutson is most proud of are cases where his work has had an impact on the real world. That includes training students to be the next generation of leaders. This fall he’s teaching several architecture and planning courses, including courses on healthy cities and community development. Many of his former students are now practitioners, addressing challenges in holistic ways, finding solutions to complex problems, and doing good work.

Recognizing his expertise, policy makers and other elected officials are starting to seek Hutson’s advice on what they can do differently, and how they should craft legislation. “It’s been really great,” he says, to see his work being used and seeding change. “I don’t want my work to just sit on a shelf.”

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