Growing up in Flint, Michigan, Bloomberg Fellow Richard Sadler often asked his parents why the suburbs around their hometown didn’t have sidewalks, why other kids didn’t walk home from school like he did and other questions that reflected an early interest in urban planning. His curiosity led to a Ph.D. in urban geography at Western University in London, Ontario, and a career path making connections between geography, human behavior and health. 

Richard Sadler
Richard Sadler

Today, he’s an assistant professor in the Division of Public Health at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine in Flint — and a cartographer of urban inequities, such as access to housing, healthy food and clean water. He uses geographic information systems, which analyze and assess geographic data, to map his childhood stomping grounds and help policy makers, health care providers and public health practitioners find health-problem hot spots and neighborhood-level solutions. For example, by mapping the home addresses of diabetic patients and measuring the proximity of quality grocery stores, can we devise an urban planning policy that might make it easier for them to improve their diets?

We talked to Richard about his interest in public health, his research on the Flint water crisis and how to bring equal food access to Flint.

You have a Ph.D. in geography. Why are you pursuing a master’s in public health? 

Since I was a research associate at Western University, my work has been linked to public health. I’m the map guy — so any time people want to find out how the environment influences health outcomes, I get involved to do spatial analysis. That’s using maps to look at how patterns of behaviors and outcomes relate to each other in the geographic space in question. An example of this is looking at where healthy foods are available in more depth than just identifying local grocery stores. Instead, we look into which stores have bananas, for example, or yogurt or lean meats, and link that information to health outcomes like heart disease. I know how to map these concepts, but I want to be a more effective researcher. I’m finding that classes like biostatistics and epidemiology are giving me a better approach to the food systems work that I’ve already been doing by adding to my researcher toolbelt. 

You also have research related to the Flint water crisis. Tell us about that. 

Flint experienced trends similar to other Rust Belt cities. As jobs left, so did a lot of white and middle-class residents. The increase in vacant properties and years of disinvestment that resulted from people leaving had a significant impact on health outcomes for the minority and low-income populations that remained in Flint. Crime increased and mental health diminished. Older neighborhoods, populated by minority and low-income groups, have found more lead in their paint and in the soil, as well as in the water. I’ve published work that illustrates how this housing inequality and racism played a role in the Flint water crisis. People like to say we live in a post-racial society, but the health disparities in Rust Belt cities like Flint, which came about because of racism in housing practices and economic opportunities, are so great that it’s just not possible for that to be true. There are still these legacies of racism built into our urban fabric.