NYC Health Commissioner as “Healthscaper”

On April 6th, Dr. Tom Farley, the NYC Health Commissioner, visited the campuses of Haverford College and Lankenau Medical Center to give two captivating lectures on his current public health campaigns. His visit was jointly sponsored by the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship and the Center for Public Health Research at the Lankenau Institute for Medical Research.

Dr. Farley, a former graduate of Haverford College, persuasively argued that in order to promote the health of a society, health education simply will not suffice. To truly improve the public’s health, the landscape — or healthscape — of society must also be changed. He pointed to NYC’s Health Department, which has made remarkable strides in decreasing smoking among NYC residents. These changes, Dr. Farley noted, are due in large part to the environmental approaches enacted by the Health Department (i.e. hiked cigarette taxes, increased smoke-free areas, etc).

Perhaps the biggest battle his department has waged has been against (excessively) unhealthy eating, a topic that he dealt with at length in his presentations. Since 2011, Dr. Farley and the NYC Health Department have unleashed a plethora of progressive policies, counter-advertisements, and alterations in NYC’s physical environment to discourage residents from eating sugary, high fat foods and drinks. From proposed soda taxes to “making NYC your gym” to viral-videos about the health consequences of excessive sugary drink consumption, Dr. Farley’s work is receiving praise  and scorn from all corners of American society. Regardless, his message is being heard and, even more importantly, seems to be working. In the winter of 2011, the CDC reported that childhood obesity rates dropped 1.2% in NYC, which was the largest decline among all US cities.

Beyond showing the effectiveness of aggressive public health campaigns, Dr. Farley’s lectures resonated with my impression of our place in modern day America. How we act in the world is very much influenced by the world itself. The choices we make, the possibilities and limitations we face — indeed our very wellbeing — are in many ways contingent upon the things we are surrounded by.

Yet, while our built environments typically have every intention of promoting people’s wellbeing, there can be — and often are — negative repercussions. But insofar as our landscape has been built, perhaps it can also be changed. And indeed, Dr. Farley’s lectures demonstrated that “healthscaping” is not only possible, but already underway.


Dr. Farley has received a lot of criticism from the food industry for his aggressive policies, but he takes it in stride. Note the political cartoon in the background!

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