‘If your thinking is fixed on time,’ wrote Peter Gould, ‘to the exclusion of space and society, you will never illuminate anything of the slightest use’ (Gould 1993, 166). In the same year as he was awarded the prestigious Lauréat Prix International de Géographie Vautrin Lud, Gould published ‘The Slow Plague,’ an inspiring treatise on the role of geography in nurturing understandings of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Gould was among many commentators around the late 1980s and early 1990s (e.g. Jones and Moon 1987; Wilson 1987; MacIntyre et al. 1993) calling for more research to explore the places in which people lived as potentially important determinants of their life-chances. Fast forward to the bustling metropolis of Beijing, China, in October 2013 and I was reminded of the aforementioned quote when listening to David McQueen and colleagues at the World Alliance in Risk Factor Surveillance (WARFS) Global Conference. McQueen re-emphasised the need to better incorporate understandings of space and society to enhance non-communicable disease and risk factor surveillance. Although the difficulties of measuring and identifying how people’s circumstances influence their health and other phenomena are well known (see Oakes 2004), interest in the role that context plays in determining what people are and are not able to do, how long they live and how much of that will be spent in good health, remains of substantive interest to a great range of people across many walks of life.