Reimagining public health and climate resilience in urban environments through youth engagement.
Tolullah (Tolu) Oni is a Nigerian public health physician and urban epidemiologist with a vision to reimagine how we address health in urban environments. As a physician initially focused on general medicine and infectious diseases, she came to understand that a lot of what affects our health happens outside the healthcare system. Tolu is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, Fellow of the International Science Council and the African Academy of Sciences, and a Next Einstein Fellow. She is currently a Professor of Global Public Health and Sustainable Urban Development at the University of Cambridge where she is focused on generating evidence to harness urban infrastructure and development for population health and planetary health.
Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent with the youngest population. Tolu sees an opportunity to leverage this agile urban form and a growing youth population to reimagine urban development and create a new kind of city that prioritizes health and sustainability. She believes that a narrow definition of health professionals ignores the influence that diverse actors like mayors, urban planners, architects, and food retailers have on public health. Tolu has launched UrbanBetter, an effort to create a new model of health infrastructure, where the patient is the city. Through a variety of initiatives that center evidence in advocacy, policy and practice, UrbanBetter seeks to foster health and climate resilience through harnessing urban environments and leveraging the power of youth. Tolu is focused on urban exposures in public space that influence the air we breathe, the ways we move, and the food we eat.
Tolu’s vision is to have youth help shape urban design and planning decisions towards creating health and climate resilience, while also creating opportunities for livelihoods in evidence generation. There is a lack of consistent, real-time data on environmental indicators to inform policy decisions coupled with widespread youth unemployment and Tolu wants to explore dynamic ways of capturing this information while demonstrating how youth can become active citizen scientists.
One example of her precision activism approach (UrbanBetter Cityzens) is the Cityzens for Clean Air Initiative, where she organized Clean Air Runs in three cities in 2022: Cape Town, Lagos, and Accra. In addition to promoting an important health behavior (running), youth used sensors to gather and report on data on air quality as well as health and climate risks encountered along the running routes. This information was integrated into an interactive data platform to develop an advocacy strategy that was ultimately presented by several of the youth involved at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt. Tolu wants to build on the success of this initiative to show how this generation can be part of the monitoring and accountability mechanisms for healthy climate resilient development. UrbanBetter is a combination of these top-down and bottom-up strategies to mobilize people and public and private sector organizations to shape cities in ways that are healthy.
UP funding will enable Tolu to dedicate herself to growing UrbanBetter with the goal of hiring staff and building organizational capacity, creating models for replication, and developing a business model for sustainability and scale.
Learn more about Tolullah Oni and UrbanBetter here.