Coming from a family of physicians, Nupur Chaudhury says she “fought the urge or pressure to be in the health world,” and instead pursued urban planning. After college, Chaudhury began working in rural development and youth empowerment while living in a small town on the border of Bangladesh and India, where she often encountered negative health outcomes correlated directly to urban conditions, including access to health-care facilities. Ever since, the urbanist and health-equity expert has dedicated her career to generating equity-focused outcomes for those most negatively impacted by environmental and health injustices. Beginning 15 years ago with a project in Brownsville of eastern Brooklyn, N.Y., Chaudhury worked with community members to better imagine health not just as proximity to a local hospital—a place residents perceived as “where people would go to get their vaccines, or to die,” she says—but instead as a matter of the built environment.
“A lot of what we discussed together was the fact that health actually is not defined by a pill or by a doctor. But that health actually is a park. It’s a double-wide sidewalk. It’s the diameter of a tree canopy,” Chaudhury says. “And these are all things that we get to collectively create and change and be agents of in our own health.”
Since then, Chaudhury has expanded her organizing initiatives, including coalition building after Hurricane Sandy. Recently, through a partnership with Dark Matter University, she helped launch a curriculum that trains communities to lead their own design processes. Working alongside a team of DMU designers, Chaudhury hopes the program will entirely reshape the traditional, and often impervious, community-engagement model typical of architecture and planning. One of these projects is in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus Heights.
“We’re working with the Gowanus Heights community, building the capacity of residents to understand the fundamentals of design, justice, and urban planning, so that they can actually shape what it is that they want, independent of what’s happening—a rezoning, a housing development,” she says. Empowering communities with tools to design how their own community health manifests in the built environment re-centers justice in the process. And it communicates to architects a core value of Chaudhury’s own practice: “Architects, designers, and planners can be the most successful health ambassadors, but they just don’t realize it,” she says.
This article first appeared in the October issue of ARCHITECT.