By Anna Harkness
This story is from the Spring/Summer 2012 edition of the SCaRP newsletter.
Dr. Nisha Botchwey joined SCaRP as an Associate Professor in January, 2012. Dr. Botchwey comes to Georgia Tech from the University of Virginia, where she was an Associate Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning and Public Health Sciences. Dr. Botchwey earned a B.A. in environmental science and public policy from Harvard University, an MCRP and Ph.D. in city and regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MPH from the University of Virginia. Dr. Botchwey maintains an interdisciplinary approach to her research and teaching, with a focus on the intersection between the built environment and its impact on the health of communities. Dr. Botchwey and I sat down together to discuss her background, research, and plans for the future at the School.
Anna Harkness: You joined the city planning department here at Georgia Tech in January. How did you end up working in city planning, studying it, and getting to where you are today?
Dr. Nisha Botchwey: How did I get into planning? I was diving off the coast of Montego Bay [Jamaica], doing research at the time. [At the end of the morning’s dive] I noticed a squatter community adjacent to an all-inclusive resort, and realized that the concerns I had with the health of the coral reef in the Montego Bay Marine Park was directly related to what was happening on the land. In order to address my concerns with the reef I needed to understand the planning and development patterns on the coast. That turned into my undergraduate thesis at Harvard University, and was followed the next summer by work on the Montego Bay 2014 Redevelopment Plan.
I then moved to the University of Pennsylvania to study planning with Ian McHarg given his prowess in the area of environmental planning. It was at the beginning of my training in Philadelphia when I was introduced to North Philadelphia, an urban ecosystem far away from the Caribbean that had experienced so much disinvestment -- destruction of the physical environment impacting the social capital and quality of life. So my focus shifted from eutrophication, coral reefs, and coastal development, to health and quality of life of people in low-income communities and community development activities of local institutions.
AH: And so that sort of reoriented you from environmental planning to community development planning?
NB: I see it as two sides of the same coin, because you can’t divorce environmental planning from community development; one should inform the other. They are symbiotic in many ways. With effective community development there are jobs for residents, good schools, quality housing and safe infrastructure, all balanced by a healthy environment. It is hard to sustain one without the other. It really needs to be connected. This perspective is directly in line with my training. My undergrad degree is in Environmental Science and Public Policy, where I focused on marine ecosystems and environmental management. Shortly thereafter, my eyes were opened to the city ecosystem support with a masters and doctoral degree in City and Regional Planning. I have since completed a Masters of Public Health degree and incorporate this understanding in my work as well.
AH: These days you focus a lot on public health. How did that come in to your research?
NB: In looking at religious institutions in North Philadelphia and their contributions to community development, I saw that faith-based organizations were providing a significant amount of health services to the North Philadelphia community. The health services they were providing were not high-capital services that one would access in a typical hospital setting; they were more along the lines of education, health fairs, screenings for school, referrals to get the high-cost services at hospitals or other clinics. The Faith Based Organizations (FBOs) were catching people who were falling through the established safety net of care in this neighborhood. They were catching folks that didn’t have anywhere else to go. FBOs serve as intermediaries to promote health in cities by providing needed services to the hardest to reach populations and partnering with other organizations to help more people realize improved health outcomes.
But also at that time I was a personal trainer and started a non-profit in North Philadelphia called the Trinity Center. Among its mission themes, the Trinity Center worked to promote health in the community, an effort that I led. The participants in the healthy communities program learned how to use their local environment to be more physically active and eat better. We had small group sessions once a week and exercise on the sidewalks and in nearby parks. The participants completed an environmental audit to identify the things they wanted to change in their immediate neighborhood and responded with a few local clean-ups. We then celebrated with a community festival that included lots of health information and screenings.
Most recently, my work in South Africa through the Water and Health in Limpopo Project brings together villagers who live in a water-deficient region of the country. In partnership with these local residents and a team of physicians, engineers, educators, nurses and planners, we identified health, education and infrastructure concerns. To complete the circle, we designed and built a variety of solutions and are monitoring their success.
I wanted my work to improve the health of the natural environment and its occupants more broadly. This extends to where I am now, to how do you develop a workforce of planners and public health practitioners who can develop a vision, implement, and maintain healthy communities. It extends beyond what I was doing at the beginning of my training, to where I am now as a profesoor writing, teaching and applying best practices in healthy communities so that there’s an army of people who can go out and do this work.
AH: On that note, can you talk a little about the work you’ve done to develop healthy communities courses?
NB: A few years ago, I presented at an American Public Health Association meeting on built environment and public health training. The audience response was quite positive, especially in wanting more information on what a model curriculum for a healthy communities class would look like. In response, I led a group of faculty from various universities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a paper outlining a model built environment and public health curriculum that has been used across the nation. Once published, I took the rest of the material that did not make its way into the article and developed the Built Environment + Public Health Curriculum website, www.bephc.com, which hosts guidance on readings, exercises, training in built environment and public health that we see in Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, from faculty who have a research interest in this area, to schools that offer courses, have certificate or specializations, or joint degree programs with public health. And it’s been a really neat resource, and I’m looking forward to developing it further, given the changing landscape in healthy communities research and practice.
I would love to see SCaRP develop our offerings in the area of health and the built environment in a way that allows us to graduate students who to take leadership roles in addressing these issues locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.
AH: What are you doing here at Tech to continue that work, and going forward?
NB: One of the things I didn’t talk much about was my interest in citizen participation, and not just engaging communities, but this notion of public engagement methodologies. This is where you are able to better understand how best to approach different types of communities given the social, economic, and technological context in which they operate. My South Africa work is a great example of how complicated, yet rewarding an investment in this critical dimension of community development can be. Emerging questions that many of us are beginning to struggle with in this area concerns public engagement in this new era of tweets, blogs and online surveys. Of additional concern is how to consistently reach communities who have limited access to these online venues, who are often the same group that have not participated in the planning and redevelopment of their neighborhoods. These are exciting topics to work on and a great city to work in to realize change.
Anna Harkness is a second-year MCRP student at Georgia Tech and the editor of the SCaRP newsletter. She came to Atlanta from California, where she earned a BA in economics from Scripps College. She is specializing in land use and works for the Center for Quality Growth and Regiona