Blog & Updates

June 5, 2023

A five course menu: Recap SURREAL Network School II

Prenote: 333 days after the first Network school in Utrecht, the SURREAL consortium got together 500 kilometres away for another intense week of discourse on urban health. The venue set for the occasion was: Paris. A city well known for dividing opinions, separating romantics from pragmatists, and housing in proximity, both, the wealthy and the poverty-stricken. Such division and diversity can offer up an ideal milieu for enlightenment to those open to reason, making it the perfect place for round two. “Ding, Ding.” 

1. Les mises en bouche: Early-Stage-Researcher Presentations 

The role of the appetiser is to whet the appetite. To succinctly express what the future holds. It is also the dish that allows the chef most room to experiment with new combinations in the hope, that one day, the appetiser will develop into a flavoursome main dish.  

A similar role to the appetiser was bestowed upon the ESRs. They were challenged to provide a short 10-minute presentation on their PhD project while highlighting on-going issues, which then fed into receiving feedback from the consortium members.  

The sessions were organised across two mornings and four themes: ‘Social dimensions of health’, ‘Engaging with society’, ‘Complexities in research’ and ‘Experimental research’. This structure allowed for more in-depth discussions, provided a way to get to know about all the different flavours of urban health research within the consortium. Importantly, ESRs were able to identify common dilemmas in their research, which opened up opportunities for collaboration, while also renewing their enthusiasm.  

Such a mise-en-bouche experience in the context of the ESR’s PhD journey may actually turn out to be a pivotal moment, giving each ESR a surge in confidence to, one day soon, present their PhD project as the flavoursome main dish for their doctoral thesis defence.  

2. L’entrée: Keynote Speeches 

A well-chosen entrée usually sets the tone for the whole meal, while offering a deeper appreciation of the main course. Likewise, the keynote speeches were fundamental ingredients of the network school where experts in the field of urban health research taught us the recipes for success for making public policy. 

Laetitia Huiart (right) serving us a presentation on "Health Status in France, Deprived Territories and Vulnerable Groups"

Laetitia Huiart, from Sante Public France, gave an honest, illuminating speech about the public policy experiences of Covid-19 in France. In principle, progress has been made at an ideological level to reduce health inequalities. However, there is still much to be done for urban health research to practically strengthen and inform governmental strategies. She vocalised the importance of achieving coherency among actors across distinct levels of society, particularly, the media. In this regard, improving science communication should be a priority for researchers to increase the rate of dissemination between furnishing research evidence, and seeing such evidence influence policy.  

One way of ensuring that urban health research has greater impact on public policy circles is by adding an economic dimension to studies. Marc Suhrcke, from LISER, demonstrated through multiple examples, how different branches of economics have started approaching the study of urban health. Topics such as the value of cost-benefit analyses, optimal equilibriums, and game strategies share a common theme of maximizing limited resources, which is something government bodies hold in high regard and which applies not only to economics, but also public health policy. 

The pragmatism from both keynote speeches suggests the entree was a cold dish, but one that put the group with good appetite for what was to come next.  

3. Le plat principal: An excursion with the City Council of Paris with various sides of workshops 

The main dish is usually judged based on whether it is better than what you could have had at home.  

The city council of Paris invited us for a presentation at the Climate Academy, located in the former city hall of the fourth arrondissement, whose space is now dedicated to providing a space for young people to get together, collaborate on local environmental challenges, and offers workshops to empower the youth to create a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle.  

The presentation focused on two recent urban renovation projects in the city of Paris. One based in an affluent neighbourhood and the other in a far more polluted, deprived, area of Paris. 

The first project is called Paris Beach (Paris-Plages) and concerns the transformation of a busy road alongside the Left Bank of the river Seine, formerly dedicated to transportation vehicles, into a space for recreation.  

The urban planner in charge of this project, Jean-Christophe Choblet, told us about the motivation for this project and its practical implications. Paris Beach is envisioned to be a freely accessible public walkway and offers recreational activities for those that do not have the means to escape the city during the scorching summer months.  

The Seine has been a place for recreation for centuries, and has inspired many artists. Above we see Georges Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" (1884), set on one of the Seine's Islands (source:

The walkway was built on the principle of resilience to consider the damaging dangers of flooding as well as the diverse and changing needs of those who use the walkway. When experiencing the walkway first-hand, it was evident that the project has been successful in engineering affordances that allowed people to engage in all types of activities, from social, to cultural, to exercising and to engaging in active transport.  

The second project was devoted to reducing severe air pollution levels in the northern outskirts of Paris. This was done by creating a more interconnected subway system, so vehicular usage around the highway circulating Paris’s administrative limits, called the Boulevard Périphérique, will be reduced.  

There are also intentions to convert a 2024 Olympic site for gymnastics into a state-of-the-art physical activity centre for local inhabitants and those living in areas neighbouring the region of Paris. There were some concerns from the consortium whether these improvements in the outskirts may introduce gentrification, potentially pushing away vulnerable populations.  

What we learned from these projects was how equity in urban health projects is often highlighted as an aspiration but is often difficult to achieve when regulations are not in place to prevent a dynamic free market system that ultimately benefit the more affluent.  

The following day, Basile Chaix kicked off an afternoon workshop on the use of wearable sensors and smartphones in urban health research. He showed us how these technologies are already bringing a far more complete understanding of how environmental exposures impact population health.  

Amit Birenboim presented a talk on how virtual reality experiments has been used in urban health research. He emphasized how well constructed VR experiments can give us insight into how specific future adjustments to urban environments can modify health, through changes to perception, physiological parameters, and behaviour.  

ESR’s Andrea Montanari and Alex Wang supported the workshop with a playful empirical demonstration of the sensors they are using in their projects. Importantly, they also mentioned how tracking smartphone behaviour across different settings can provide new insights into how these indispensable gadgets have become embedded in our environmental interactions, affecting our attention, mood, and place attachments.  

Demonstration of two wearable sensors by Alex, with James as volunteer.

Bernd Resch, from the University of Salzburg, contributed to the workshop by serving us a presentation on his research projects using social sensing, based on sensor and social media data.  

He revealed how physiological sensors can be used for measuring arousal levels, to assess points in an urban environment that cause avoidable stress on cyclists. We also learned about the use of social media data as a behavioural predicting tool for large-scale disasters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.  

4. Le plateau de fromages (en option) :  

Common to French cuisine is an optional sharing platter of cheese. It is usually a sign of the occasion winding down, marking a transition from intense to more light-hearted discussions.  

Friday morning, the ESRs were treated to a workshop devoted to engaging the wider public with your research by Eleanor Saunders, from the Careers Research & Advisory Centre. Intriguingly, the start of the session revealed that there was a general discomfort among ESRs with the notion of commercialising their research output, as a marketing nuance felt conflictual with the identity and values of public health scientists. Nonetheless, like a bad smelling cheese, Eleanor showed through some fun, light-hearted exercises that there is good taste in knowing what makes your research valuable to different audiences.  

Mugdha showing us her game cards.

In the afternoon, ESRs and supervisors were given the option to help pilot a board game created by Mugdha Chandratreya. The aim of the game is to develop a greater understanding of women’s’ priorities in changing the urban environment through collaborative gameplay. The activity provided her with valuable feedback, having been played in good spirits with everyone embracing the character roles they were given.  

5. Le dessert: The many informal exchanges 

While the main dish usually brings people to the table, the dessert is usually the course which leaves people most looking forward to coming back to the table. Remembering the time in Utrecht the year before, there was great excitement around the consortium to catch-up again. Fortunately, Paris served up a Mille-feuille cake, with the layers consisting of numerous opportunities to catch up over morning coffee breaks, lunch appetisers, early evening drinks and dinner.  

Without revealing too much, highlights included a humorous presentation by the supervisors presenting personal objects from their home country and a karaoke night that left many thankful they gave up on their childhood dreams of becoming a popstar to pursue a career within public health.  

Le café après le diner : Acknowledgements 

A coffee is usually served to help people digest what was a splendid five-course menu. So, in digesting the 2nd Network School, there is a necessity to thank those who made this fine experience possible. This includes Elke Brungs, Basile Chaix, Martin Dijst, Andrea Montanari & Alex Wang who all contributed to ensuring everything was organised and ran smoothly.  

A special mention to all the keynote speakers, Laetita Huiart, Marc Suhrcke, Jean Christophe Choblet, Michele Angelique Nicol and Fernande Ntsame-Abegue who substantively helped to ensure everyone left feeling enlightened. Gratitude is also extended to all the supervisors and SURREAL stakeholders who took time out of their busy schedules to come support the ESRs.  

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