CRESH goes Stateside: International Medical Geography Symposium 2013

by Helena Tunstall, Catherine Tisch and Anna Kenyon

The 15th International Medical Geography Symposium, the biggest international academic health geography conference, took place July 7-12 this year, at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, USA. This conference is always a fun, friendly and inspirational meeting: a real CRESH highlight. This time we were represented by Helena Tunstall (presenting on ‘triple jeopardy’ in England and impacts of internal migration on health inequalities in UK), Anna Kenyon (presenting on walkability measures and walking outcomes in Scotland) and Catherine Tisch (presenting on tobacco environments and adolescent smoking behaviours in Scotland).  Abstracts for these talks can be found in the program, but watch this space for news of forthcoming publications on these topics. In this short blog post we note some thoughts arising from the conference.   

This year at the biannual conference there were, not surprisingly, a large number of North American attendees and fewer British attendees (reflecting flight costs in the region of £1,000) leading to a bigger emphasis on biostatistics than at some previous meetings. However, there were more attendees from less developed countries than in previous years, due to National Science Foundation and American Association of Geographers travel grants.

Major topics represented at the conference were GIS, infectious diseases, spatial behaviour, healthcare and international migration. One of the most popular sessions was in an ‘author meets critics’ discussion format and focussed on Julie Guntham’s book: ‘Weighing in Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism’ with discussants Tim Brown (Queen Mary University of London), Steve Cummins (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) and Eric Carter (Macalester College, USA).

Samantha Cocking’s presentation on spatiotemporal population estimates for health was thought provoking.  Her University of Southampton team (co-led with David Martin and Samuel Leung) are tackling the challenge of estimating more realistic small area populations for specific dates and times.  The project – Pop24/7 – offers huge opportunities for health research in terms of more accurate spatiotemporal population denominators and for estimating populations at events occurring at specific times or evolving quickly (e.g. following earthquakes). 

We noticed that relatively few papers engaged with the health implications of housing policies and demographic change – despite the fact these are significantly altering the social geography of many US cities such as nearby Chicago and have been major topics of research in other fields (see, for example, the Journal of American Planning Association’s article on Chicago’s public housing). In Chicago in recent years all of the city’s 82 high rise public housing projects have been knocked down, meanwhile luxury condo skyscrapers are being built in downtown. After significant population loss in last two decades Chicago’s population has begun to grow again and between 2000 and 2010 its central areas grew in population by 48,000. However the city lost 181,000 of its African-American population during this time period, a fall of 17% (see New York Times article ‘The Death and Life of Chicago’). Two fascinating papers focussed on the public housing policies and health in other North American cities were presented, describing HOPE VI in Louisville, Kentucky (by Carol Hanchette) and housing redevelopment in Toronto (by James Dunn).  Further afield, a special session on earthquake recovery in Christchurch, New Zealand, considered the case of health geography transformed by natural disaster and the policy responses to it.

As the subject of two sessions and ten papers ‘blue space’ seemed to be one of the fastest growing health geography topics. However – of approximately 250 posters and presentations – there were too few papers submitted about the global economic crisis and its implications for health to justify a dedicated session. It would be good to see a session dedicated to this important and evolving issue (see Jamie’s blog post here) at the next IMGS.  The next IMGS will be hosted by Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in 2015, and CRESH will be there!

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