Jens AERTS
ISOCARP Urban Health Community of Practice / BUUR, New York, USA

Jens Aerts is a senior urban planner with 20 years of experience, working with international development agencies, city governments, developers and non-for-profit organizations on the intersection of urban practice, policy and research. Most recently he has been working for UN-Habitat, UNICEF and the World Bank. He authored UNICEF’s recent publication ‘Shaping urbanization for children’ and supported the agency in program implementation of its Global Urban Strategy, including training and technical assistance on child rights and urban planning in regional and country offices (Dominican Republic, LACRO, Paraguay, Philippines, South-Africa, UAE). He has contributed to various technical reports, guides and popular articles linking urban health, road safety, child rights and sustainable urban development. Recently he has been active as member of the Advisory Board for the upcoming Street for Kids program in the Global Designing Cities Initiative.

Jens is an associate partner at BUUR - Bureau for Urbanism, specialized on sustainable urban development programs and policies, such as neighborhood upgrading, green mobility planning, healthy environments, circular economy and place-making. Before that he assisted both Governments of the Flemish and the Brussels Region to build urban planning capacity in public agencies and to direct community led planning processes and key public space interventions.

Jens has been teaching at the Cosmopolis Centre for Urban Research of the University of Brussels (VUB) from 2011 until 2016 and is currently affiliated with the Urban Community and Health Equity Lab at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP). He holds a MSc in Civil Engineering and Architecture from the University of Leuven (Belgium) and obtained his MA Urban Planning at Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya in Barcelona (Spain). He is member of the Board of the Flemish Spatial Planning Organisation (VRP) and the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP). 

Insight from "Health Disparity and Public Space in High Density Environments"

The International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) initiated a working group on urban health back in March, yet COVID-19 prompted the group of planners to accelerate rethinking the role of city planning and how to design in the future with urban health at the core. Jens shared five comments in response to the presentations of the webinar: 

  1. Choice of words makes a difference, call for  ‘physical distancing’ over ‘social distancing’, and highlight the issue over overcrowding instead of an inaccurate judgment on density. A majority of countries opted for a lock-down including shelter-in-place, which highlights the challenge of those in low-quality housing and overcrowded neighborhoods to comply with physical distancing. In the meantime, social and local connections have proven to be crucial during the pandemic to keep resilience intact in communities, even in dense environments where space is limited.

  2. An opportunity created by the pandemic is to leverage public space as a component of a resilient urban health system, with the notion of ‘public space as a spatial vaccine’, especially for cities with populations residing in cities where public space and public transportation are limited. 

  3. The reversed migration patterns and the new ways of living and working supported by digital connectivity underline the importance of metropolitan planning, that recognises the urban-rural continuum, plans the layout of key urban systems that provide eco-services (such as nutrition, water and waste management) and recognises the need to improve quality of live and economy in both city center and underserviced peripheries.

  4. Build a health resilience system on neighbourhood-scale, with traditional and more innovative infrastructure for social services that embrace hybrid programs (such as schools that appear as key food hubs for children) and reflects principles of proximity and inclusion.  

  5. City designers have a role to play to develop healthy built environments that support systemic solutions for the other, slow pandemic that exists, related with non-communicable diseases and explaining the rise of cancer, pneumonia, obesity, stress and mental health issues. Health system is more than health care, it requires a holistic approach, including a built environment dimension.  

Jens closed by acknowledging how we are together still in shock, but this is exactly the chance to show solidarity and cope with our collective trauma together.