UCL Health of the Public


Spotlight on Dr Kimon Krenz

8 February 2024

This month, we speak to Dr Kimon Krenz (Senior Research Fellow, Space Syntax Laboratory) to find out how his research in health, architecture and urban planning is improving the health of the public.

Kimon Krenz

What is your role and what does it involve?

As a Senior Research Fellow at the Space Syntax Laboratory within the Bartlett School of Architecture and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Bradford Institute of Health Research, my work resides at the intersection of health, architecture, and urban planning. My primary research contributes to the ‘Healthy Places’ theme of ActEarly, a research project backed by the UK Prevention Research Partnership. This project is dedicated to understanding how to transform early life environments to enhance the well-being and futures of children in economically challenged areas, specifically in Tower Hamlets, London, and Bradford.

In my work, I apply my expertise in spatial data science, urban analytics, and geographic information science. In simpler terms, I leverage advanced computational techniques to dissect and understand the built environment–that's everything from streets and buildings to green spaces and air pollution–and its profound impact on our health and wellbeing. By combining information on how people move and interact with these environments with large-scale detailed health data, I aim to uncover patterns and insights that can guide improvements in urban design and public health strategies.

My research is varied and deeply rooted in real-world issues. I collaborate on various projects, for example, to explore how unequal access to early childhood services affects long-term outcomes, to understand the influence of fast-food outlets on childhood obesity, unpack the mental health benefits of green spaces, evaluate children's perceptions and experiences of their daily commute to school, and developing new ways to describe the qualities of our surroundings. A key part of my role involves collaborating closely with communities and policymakers through the entire research process, ensuring that all voices are heard and that our findings don't just enrich academic discourse but lead to tangible improvements in people's lives.

In addition, as the organiser of the Space Syntax Lab Seminars, I have the pleasure of bringing together a diverse range of researchers at the intersection of the built environment and society. The seminars span various disciplines, often including research on how our surroundings affect our well-being and population health.

How are you improving the health of the public? 

My efforts to enhance the health of the public revolve around the innovative integration of spatial data science in public health research. By rigorously measuring and analysing the built environment and its interplay with health outcomes, my work aims to produce actionable insights that can directly inform and transform urban planning and public health policies. This approach targets the root of health disparities by informing the design of environments that foster wellbeing from early childhood, especially in underserved communities. Through this lens, the improvement of public health is a tangible goal, achieved by reshaping the spaces where people live, meet, learn, and play.

What do you find most interesting or enjoyable about your work? 

The most captivating aspect of my work is the opportunity to explore the complex ways in which the built environment influences our behaviour and wellbeing. Delving into the myriad factors that shape health outcomes, from the placement of green spaces to the distribution of fast-food outlets, provides a rich tapestry of challenges and discoveries. What I find particularly rewarding is the process of working together with other researchers, communities and policymakers and translating these intricate data patterns into practical strategies that enhance community health and wellbeing. The dynamic nature of this research–coupled with the meaningful impact it has on real-world issues–makes every day a fascinating and fulfilling journey.

How have cross-disciplinary collaborations shaped your research?

Cross-disciplinary collaborations have been pivotal in broadening the scope and depth of my research. With a background in architecture and urban design, my perspective on health has always been spatial. Engaging with experts from fields such as epidemiology, psychology, environmental, social, and behavioural science, community organizations and policymakers has infused my work with diverse perspectives and methodologies. These collaborations have not only enriched my understanding of the issues at hand but have also facilitated the development of more holistic research approaches. By bridging the gap between disciplines, we're able to tackle complex health and environmental challenges with a comprehensive approach that would be unattainable in a siloed research environment.

What advice would you offer to others interested in developing cross-disciplinary research?

To those eager to embark on cross-disciplinary work, my advice is to cultivate an open and curious mindset. Be prepared to step outside your comfort zone and embrace the richness that other fields of study can bring to your work. Building strong, respectful partnerships is key–seek out collaborators who share your passion for addressing complex issues but may bring different skills and perspectives to the table. Be aware, that established concepts and terminology might mean very different things in other fields. Communication is critical: learn to articulate your ideas clearly across disciplines and listen actively. Remember, the goal is to learn from each other and together contribute to a body of knowledge that transcends traditional academic boundaries.

What's next on the research horizon for you?

I am looking forward to two new research projects where I am involved as Co-Investigator. The first project is led by Dr Francesca Solmi and focused on the environment and eating disorders. We are developing novel measures and hypotheses through interdisciplinary collaborations, and piloting new ways of collecting and analysing environmental risk factors for eating disorders. For this, we have established an interdisciplinary network of researchers, young people with lived experience, carers, and teachers to tackle the increasing issue of eating disorders in childhood and adolescence. In this project, I will work specifically on the intersection of the built environment and eating disorders. We will gather information about where 250 adolescent cohort participants go (using a GPS tracker), what they do, and how they feel. We use this information to pilot research exploring what environmental factors might cause or lead to the risk of eating disorders in these people.

The second project is a newly MRC-funded four-year interdisciplinary population health improvement research cluster led by Prof Rosie McEachan, Prof Laura Vaughan and Prof John Wright, focused on Healthy Urban Places in the North of the UK (HUP-North). The project targets areas with less healthy environments to bridge health disparities. Emphasizing community involvement, we will establish 'Community Collaboratives' in Bradford and Liverpool, involving over 3 million people in cohort studies to monitor health over time. These studies assess the health effects of various urban features and guide decision-making.

Together with Prof Laura Vaughan and Kuldeep Sohal, I am leading a work package on the development and co-production of a longitudinal spatial and health data infrastructure. We will enrich a series of existing cohort studies with co-produced detailed spatial indicators through time and use these in novel place-based, policy-relevant epidemiological, interventional research and longer-term modelling. Together with the wider project team, we will use this data to evaluate the health impacts of urban changes by comparing pre- and post-intervention data, ensuring decision-makers have the necessary information to foster healthier communities. The initiative's findings will be shared with policymakers and researchers across the UK to promote widespread benefits.

If you could make one change in the world today, what would it be?

It is unacceptable that less affluent people often have to live in environments that pose threats to their health and further disadvantage them. If I could make one change in the world today, it would be to ensure equitable access to healthy, sustainable, and enriching environments for all individuals, regardless of their socio-economic status. This change would encompass not only access to green spaces and recreational areas but also to safe, affordable housing, nutritious food options, and quality healthcare. By addressing the foundational disparities in our built and social environments, we can tackle a host of interconnected issues. Creating a world where every person has the opportunity to thrive in their environment is a crucial step towards a more equitable, healthy, and sustainable future for all.