Professor Rodrigo Reis Aims to Keep Us Moving

Faculty; Public Health

​Rodrigo Reis grew up in Curitiba, a city in southern Brazil known for its urban planning. He became accustomed to the accessible parks and high quality public transportation there, where bus rapid transit was invented.

As he grew older and began traveling, he realized that Curitiba was the exception among big cities, not just in Brazil but all over the world, where few urban areas have high-quality options for physical activity.

“There are not many good examples out there,” he said. That experience led Reis to the focal point of his academic research: “How to make cities a better place to live for an active lifestyle, where people can choose to be active.”

Reis joined the Brown School in July as a professor in the public health program and chair of the urban design specialization. In this role, he will bring his expertise on the health challenges across urban built environments to St. Louis, while retaining his international focus.

Improving the options for activity is “especially a challenge in low-income neighborhoods in the developing world, and in big cities in the U.S.,” he said, noting that the lack of amenities like parks, public transportation, sidewalks and other public facilities increases health disparities.

“We have to be smarter in how we create our cities,” he said.

Reis doesn’t expect to replicate solutions that have worked elsewhere, but to recreate “the experience” by which solutions are found.

The biggest misconception about the process, he said, was that answers must come from the top down.

“People are waiting for the government to provide the magic bullet,” he said.  But while policymakers are important, so is community engagement.

Reis cited two current projects he’s particularly excited about. One is an NIH-funded study exploring urban design features in 14 cities around the world to find out how success can be translated across borders.

The second is research he is leading that compares efforts in Curitiba and Belfast, Northern Ireland, to help older adults become more active.

When he looked to move from his academic post in Brazil, he said, the Brown School stood out.

“I wanted to be challenged in the best place with the best people to work with,” he said. Especially important was the school’s emphasis on translating research into community change — “taking research to the next level.”

Reis will be teaching a course on Built Environment and Public Health, as well as leading public health seminars.

“Teaching, mentoring, is the most exciting part of the job,” he said. “You learn so much from students. It brings the youth back to you.”

Learn more about Reis’ work during the Public Health Speaker Series event on September 20.