Research News

Tackling Childhood Obesity


Urban Design Lab and MIT Take an Interdisciplinary Approach

Nearly two out of three Americans are overweight or obese, and obesity is now the fastest growing cause of disease and death in the country. In 2000, the total annual cost of obesity in America was $117 billion. The most alarming aspect of this trend: the rapid rise of childhood obesity, which has been linked to early-onset type II diabetes, and has substantial impacts on life expectancy and quality of life.

With the approval of a $1.4 million grant from the United Health Foundation, researchers from the Urban Design Lab at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the Collaborative Initiatives at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have joined to address the complex issues related to this epidemic. While discrete responses to this critical problem have shown some success, the researchers believe more integrated strategies are needed to improve outcomes across the country.

“To adequately address the obesity epidemic among American children, we need to employ strategies as comprehensive and ambitious as the pioneering environmental legislation of the 1970s and the current antismoking campaign,” says Michael Conard, the project director.

The one-year project will draw together experts in public health, medicine, business, economics and design to apply a “big-picture” perspective while identifying and analyzing issues on a variety of scales. Ultimately, the goal is to pinpoint strategies for arresting and reversing the upward trend in childhood obesity and to provide recommendations for implementing national pilot projects.

The Urban Design Lab (UDL) integrates social processes, education initiatives, technological solutions, and political empowerment to create long-lasting sustainable changes in communities. UDL also provides technical and consultation services to community-based organizations, with the goal of incorporating sustainable alternatives for meeting development needs.

Collaborative Initiatives (CI) at MIT works to develop systemic solutions to complex “big-picture” issues that can be addressed effectively only through multidisciplinary efforts. CI brings together leaders and technical experts from a range of disciplines who who are not satisfied with traditional mechanisms for change, and want to accelerate the development and application of new ideas.

The United Health Foundation was established by UnitedHealth Group in 1999 as a not-for-profit, private foundation dedicated to improving health and health care. Its mission is to support health and people in communities by working with others to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of medical outcomes; to expand access to healthcare services for those in challenging circumstances; and to enhance the well-being of communities.

For more information on the study or to schedule an interview, please contact Lindsay Schubiner at 212-854-0033 or