The City as a Scientific Study – Q&A with the New York Academy of Sciences

Ellis Rubinstein deepens our understanding of the scientific value of cities through a Q&A with John Rossant as the New York Academy of Sciences becomes a Member of NewCities.

Polluted Morning, Beijing © Souvid Datta

JR: NewCities is delighted to welcome the New York Academy of Sciences as a member. Our two institutions share a similar approach to the vital importance of cities as vectors of societal change – including in science.

ER: Studying the urban environment is, very simply, essential to studying society. Approximately 70 per cent of the world’s population will soon be living in urban areas, which is quite astounding. And so many of our major global challenges—creating sustainable energy, mitigating climate change, controlling epidemics, producing enough nutritious food—can be more efficiently addressed by cities and their mayors than the creaking and siloed bureaucracies of nation states. And, of special importance, cities are where the talent pool of innovators resides.

JR: NYAS and NCF have decided to focus on Early Child Development, looking at this important issue in an urban context. Why is ECD so key?

ER: The first 1,000 days of human life, from conception to age two, are critical in determining future physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being. As a child grows, from inside the womb through the first few years of life, massive changes take place in the developing brain. Environmental influences including social interaction with parents/caregivers, socioeconomic status/poverty, emotional stress, and the adequacy of infant nutrition have all been shown to have profound effects on neural development, cognitive functioning, and future success.

Deepening our understanding of the impact of both positive and negative experiences on the developing brain and body is an important first step toward promoting healthy early childhood development. Translating that information into an advocacy strategy and implementing interventions to reduce economic and health disparities observed before children ever set foot in a pre-school classroom will be crucial to ensuring the social, emotional, and economic success of millions of children worldwide. And therefore, for a minimal investment, huge lifetime healthcare savings will accrue to cities while their populations will be better able to drive economic expansion as well.

JR: The way we will live in cities will certainly affect our health in very deep and broad ways. Certainly, the health and wellness of urbanites is something that NCF is focusing on more and more. From the viewpoint of NYAS, what are the specific areas which will need the most attention going forward?

ER: Just consider the effect of pollution on the millions of people living in Beijing and New Delhi. Then consider the incredible challenges of obesity and diabetes in Mexico City and cities in the Gulf. And finally, how will the huge increase in people living into their 80s, 90s, and even longer be supported in the aging-unfriendly cities we are currently building? It’s clear that our health and the health of our cities are inextricably linked.
We need to assess how city-living affects us and our world (such as greater potential for the spread of diseases) and, conversely, how we affect the future of cities (such the rise in sea levels, and thus urban flooding, being linked to climate change, as well as our ability to create sustainable “smart” cities).

The Academy regularly holds scientific conferences and convenings, such as our conference “Human Health in the Face of Climate Change: Science, Medicine, and Adaptation” in Barcelona earlier this year, that explore the complex interactions between humans and environment.

Certainly, our best measure to ensure our future well-being is to grow the scientific body of knowledge about these interactions, so that we can then formulate evidence-based policies, actions, and interventions that will help to mitigate risks and take advantage of resources.