Health and Discipline
by Alan Mee
As the term ‘Geography’ becomes more and more like a thin cover for a treasure trove of disciplinary specialities (medical geography, political geography, social geography, population geography, historical, urban, cultural, etc), the idea that ‘spatialising’ information can contribute to our knowledge, health and welfare is growing.
Medical geography, for instance, which researches and maps social and spatial inequalities in health, and deals with the history and potential threat of infectious diseases over wide areas, can bring us loaded information in relation to health. Professor Dennis Pringle at NUIM, Maynooth , distinguishes between ‘medical’ and ‘health’ geographers, clarifying his own interest in the medical as the “use of geographical analysis to provide us with insights about health and ill-health”, while health geography for him deals with “how health issues can inform us about the nature of places”.
The Irish Health Atlas , for example, on the HSE website indicates the suburban nature of the nursing home provision in this country, so we can see immediately how likely it is that most of us, if we can’t afford a better plan, are likely to grow old in a field, or rather, a single storey, monolithic state sponsored bungalow on a green field site far from amenities like shops, a pub, or a library.
The National Cancer Registry of Ireland publishes national Cancer maps , though these seem to have little connection to the spatialisation of the phenomenon. This is partly because the use of the county scale as a breakdown unit is too large for most people to conceptualise in relation to their personal neighbourhood or area. These maps would relate to the scale of the official Radon mapping of the country, unlike the more precise flood mapping. Both are examples of the increasing connections between simultaneous scales mapping (i.e. being able to zoom easily Google Earth style) spatialising, health and safety.
In relation to another current health priority for Ireland, in particular, and especially related to those design professionals who operate in the broader scales of urban design and landscape, detail ‘Obesity Maps’ seem not to be currently available here, indicating to us some health impacts of the ruinous physical development in Ireland of the last fifteen years in particular. In the UK, the Government’s Foresight programme (a fascinating initiative in itself – “Foresight creates challenging visions of the future to ensure effective strategies now”) published a document entitled Tackling Obesities: Future Choices — Obesity System Atlas . This is not a spatial/geographical map, more a systems/factors map or “qualitative, causal loop model” related to obesity. The study includes a ”Full Generic Map, Environmental Activity Cluster (Map 8)”, which highlights the particular contribution of physical surroundings in the UK to the obesity of a person or a group of individuals. Looked at from the design disciplines, it is arguable that the relatively low weighting (no pun intended) given to designed physical surroundings and context may be much less than is actually real on the ground, especially in car-ridden Ireland.
Additional reading in the Ireland-specific health and design research areas, could include Conor Skehan’s “Right to 15 min City” talk, delivered in 2007 to the Academy of Urbanism Conference at Dublin Castle (Space, Place, Life); also the work of Kevin M. Leyden, Professor of Political Science, NUI Galway, invited Honorary Research Professor of Social Science & Public Policy at the Centre for Innovation and Structural Change (CISC) there. This work seems to return to the importance of practical linked, working mid-density (at least) neighbourhoods as a basic foundation for health of individuals and communities. In broader terms, the work of Gregory Bateson, anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist..!) and the career of Christopher Alexander (just architect and mathematician) come to mind as thinkers who connected the spatial to the healthy at many scales.
The question arises as to the role or scope of influence of the Irish urban designer, architect and landscape architect, thinking, as we do, spatially and having regard to context socially, culturally, as well as environmentally. Jay Stuart, well known architect and energy innovator in building and design, maps energy usage in neighbourhoods in Ireland, adding information for communities about usage, potential efficiencies, but also indicators of possibly redundant layouts, unhealthy forms and morphologies, ultimately embedded in unhealthy systems, often built by us relatively recently. Surely this is a future direction for the Irish designer to go in, diagnosing in advance possible unhealthy layouts, designs, briefs and locations? The disciplines around design, at many scales, can make major contributions, as well as broadening and innovating the scope of the profession in Ireland.
 Vandenbroeck, Ir Philippe, Goossens, WS Dr Jo, Clemens, WS Marshall, (2007), UK Department of Innovation Universities and Skills, www.bis.gov.uk/assets/bispartners/foresight/docs/obesity/11.pdf
This Article appeared in Architecture Ireland Issue 260