Now Viewing: Built Environment and Health

Crafting Win-Win Solutions with Health Impact Assessments

Jun 22, 2015, 3:01 PM, Posted by Pamela Russo

Health impact assessments are a powerful way to help communities think broadly about the health implications and equity aspects of policies and projects, so that a comprehensive approach to health becomes routine.

Prison Alternatives Boosted by Health Impact Assessment

Last week, almost 500 attendees arrived in the nation’s capital for the 2015 National Health Impact Meeting. The impressive turnout is a testament to the growing importance of health impact assessments (HIA) as a tool to improve community health outcomes.

As this year’s meeting attendees know, an HIA is a process that helps evaluate the potential health effects of a plan, project or policy outside of the traditional health arena. The findings from a completed HIA can provide valuable recommendations to help communities more effectively foster better and more equitable health among their citizens.

The use of HIAs has grown rapidly from just a few dozen in 2000 to more than 350 completed HIAs today. Dozens more are in the works. The earliest HIAs were mostly applied to the built environment, such as zoning, land use and transportation decisions. However, today the field has expanded to include such areas as energy policies, criminal justice and living wages.

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Building Healthier Places in Birmingham and Beyond

Jun 1, 2015, 11:46 AM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

How a section of Birmingham, Alabama is redeveloping and offering greater opportunities for people at multiple income levels. The secret? Engaging the community throughout the process.

With its elegant homes, pleasant park and bustling stores, the Woodlawn section of Birmingham, Alabama was described in a 1950 news article as “a really great section of Birmingham...typical of the fine things in life." Then came the racial unrest of the 1960s, disruption from urban renewal gone awry and white flight to Birmingham’s suburbs. Joblessness and poverty took root; the housing stock decayed. Today, median income in Woodlawn is just $21,000, less than half the level for Birmingham as a whole.

But now Woodlawn is in the midst of a turnaround, aiming to become not just a neighborhood that prospers economically, but also one where people live healthier lives.

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Clearing the Air in Louisville through Data and Design

May 13, 2015, 12:44 PM, Posted by Alonzo L. Plough

Louisville, Kentucky ranks among the poorest in air quality and highest in asthma rates among U.S. cities. A new art installation from Propeller Health shows residents real-time changes in the city's air quality, equipping them with the data to reach their goal of becoming one of the healthiest cities by 2020.

Airbare air quality installation in Louisville, Kentucky

I stand in front of an intriguing art installation on a busy street corner in downtown Louisville, KY, and visualize the invisible. It’s a bright orange steel kiosk outfitted with an interactive touch screen that allows passersby to “see” how air pollution levels change around the city in real time while also learning how these pollutants impact the severity of asthma symptoms. Called AirBare, the installation project was funded by RWJF and represents a unique collaboration between visual artists, big data analysts and local health advocates. By “popping” virtual bubbles on the screen, users find out what causes air pollution and what it will take to reverse it. This is relevant information for residents of Louisville, a city that consistently ranks among the lowest in air quality in the nation and has one of the highest rates of asthma and other respiratory conditions.

My visit to the AirBare installation coincided with a conference held in Louisville in March that brought together economists, health policy folks, food experts and, remarkably, Charles, the Prince of Wales, to examine the issue of air quality and the larger concept of sustainability in this Ohio River Valley city. The Prince, a longtime advocate for environmental issues with connections in Louisville, added star power to the Harmony & Health conference, sponsored by the non-profit Institute of Health Air Water & Soil. But there is plenty else to be excited about in Louisville. Under the leadership of Mayor Greg Fischer, city agencies have collected reams of data on air quality, health outcomes, life expectancy, income inequality, and unemployment, among many other measures. What has emerged is a far better picture of the tough environmental and socioeconomic issues impacting the health and wellbeing of Louisville’s 600,000 residents, and a serious and concerted commitment to build a culture of health.

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Design That Heals: The American Institute of Architects Rewrites the Rules

Apr 9, 2015, 9:27 AM, Posted by Sheree Crute

The South Bronx's Via Verde, an award-winning affordable housing complex designed around equity and social cohesion, shows us a new era of healthy design is here—and it's contagious.
 

Each winter, Raquel Lizardi and her heartiest garden club members brave the New York City cold to tend their community’s apple trees. “They are very delicate,” Lizardi says, sharing her training at GrowNYC, a nonprofit that seeks to create a healthier environment in the city, block by block. Their efforts ensure that the small orchard yields barrels of sweet Red Delicious, Gala, and slightly tart McIntosh apples for Lizardi and her neighbors in the fall.

Come spring, the group turns its attention to planting enough organic spinach, collards, kale, berries, tomatoes, other vegetables, and herbs to keep all of their tables filled with free, fresh produce.

The orchard, gardens, and grove of evergreens where Lizardi and her neighbors come together are a center of community activity at Via Verde/The Green Way, an award-winning, affordable housing development that rises above a quiet street just off bustling Third Avenue in the South Bronx. Built on a former garbage-strewn lot and Brownfield in 2012, Via Verde is now an international symbol of healthy design achievement.

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Creating Open & Sacred Spaces To Improve Health

Jan 21, 2015, 7:23 PM

In 1995, Tom Stoner and his wife Kitty discovered a tiny urban park in the middle of a busy London neighborhood that had been used as a refuge during World War II. On the backs of many of the park’s benches, the Stoners found loving thoughts and peacetime memories that had been etched by Londoners during the horrors of war. They realized that if an urban park could be a source of quiet and solace during a time of bombing and destruction, then similar natural environments could certainly offer spaces for reflection, recovery and respite for people dealing with the stress of modern life. With that idea the Stoners created the TKF Foundation to support the creation of urban green spaces.

“The speed, violence and alienation that characterize our current period in human history create an important need for open spaces, sacred places,” says Tom Stoner.

In 2010 Tom and Kitty began the National Nature Sacred Awards Initiative, designed to support the creation of public greenspaces to serve as demonstration and research sites to study the impact of nature on the human spirit. NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Tom Stoner about the intersection of green space and improved health and lives.  

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RWJF Pioneering Ideas Podcast: Episode 6 | What if? Shifting Perspectives to Change the World

Oct 20, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by Pioneer Blog Team

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RWJF's Pioneering Ideas Podcast is on iTunes! Don’t miss an episode—click to subscribe.

Welcome to the sixth episode of RWJF’s Pioneering Ideas podcast, where we explore cutting edge ideas and emerging trends that can help build a Culture of Health. Your host is Lori Melichar, director at the foundation.

Ideas Explored in This Episode

Sharing Health Care Providers’ Notes (3:08) OpenNotesTom Delbanco and Jan Walker talk with RWJF’s Emmy Ganos about why they decided getting health care providers to share their notes with patients was an essential innovation–and where their work is headed next. Here’s a hint: what if the  3 million patients who now have easy access to their clinician’s notes could co-write notes with their providers?

Rethinking How We Solve Poverty (18:46) – Kirsten Lodal, founder and CEO of LIFT, talks with RWJF’s Susan Mende and shares some simple ideas with the potential to revolutionize our approach to helping people achieve economic stability and well being. In a thought-provoking conversation, Lodal connects the dots between improving the well being of those living in poverty and building a Culture of Health.

A Historian’s Take on Building a Culture of Health (27:58) – Princeton historian Keith Wailoo and RWJF’s Steve Downs discuss how deeply held cultural narratives influence our perceptions of health, and how today’s “wild ideas” are often tomorrow’s cutting edge innovations.

Sound bites

...On opening up health care providers’ notes and what’s next:

“What I would like to do is spread the responsibility for health beyond the health care system. The health care system is good; I hope that it gets better, but there are so many other parts of our lives that contribute to our well being.” – Jan Walker, OpenNotes 

“It will be a very different world in the future. And we do think that OpenNotes is kind of giving people a peek into it. It's a first glimmer that this kind of transparency, this kind of approach to things, while it's passive now, it just opens up an enormous amount of possibilities for the future. And that's what really excites us.” – Tom Delbanco, OpenNotes

...On rethinking how we solve poverty:

“People's lives are like rivers... they flowed before coming into contact with us, and they will flow after having contact with us. And so the opportunity that we have, the privilege that we have is of most positively affecting the trajectory and the velocity of that flow. But if we forget that–if we get too swept up in having to own everything that happens in a person's life–then we won't build the best solutions, because we won't build solutions that provide people with the support they need to navigate the flow of that river over the long term.” – Kirsten Lodal, LIFT

...A historian’s take on building a Culture of Health: 

“Our concern with aggregate trends is an important one in tracing the shifting demographics of health in our country, but to understand what health actually means involves actually putting the data aside and thinking about lives and thinking about individuals and thinking about what these trends mean on an individual level.”– Keith Wailoo, Princeton University

Your Turn

Now that you’ve listened – talk about it! Did anything you heard today get you thinking in new ways about how you can help build a Culture of Health? Do you have a cutting-edge idea you’d like to discuss? Comment below or tweet at me at @lorimelichar, or consider submitting a proposal. Be sure to keep the conversation and explorations going at #RWJFpodcast.

Join the Conversation

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The Ever-Evolving Traffic Light Could See More Changes Ahead

Sep 26, 2014, 2:24 PM

A one-of-its-kind pedestrian traffic walk signal recently turned heads in Portugal with a dancing figure that entertained people as they waited for him to tell them when it was safe to cross the street.

The signal—not planned for mass circulation anytime soon—was developed by the manufacturer Smart to advertise its cars’ safety features. And if it saves lives along the way, it’s in sync with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), where the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has found that 4,432 pedestrians died in traffic crashes in 2011, up 3 percent from 2010. More than a quarter of the accidents resulting in death happened at traffic intersections, both at marked crosswalks and intersections with traffic lights. Andrea Gielen, PhD, head of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins University, says the school’s research shows that many of these accidents occur because pedestrians are distracted by music in their earphones or by speaking or texting on cellphones.

NHTSA began a campaign to keep pedestrians safer last year and highlights community projects that improve pedestrian safety in a stories section on its website on pedestrian safety. One project, developed at University of California, San Diego, was a presentation at a low-income elementary public school in San Diego, Calif. The English- and Spanish-language presentation demonstrated dangerous scenarios and how to prevent them, such as kids dressed in only dark clothing, which makes them difficult to see at night. NHTSA is updating the site regularly to help communities develop their own safe walking programs.

As for traffic lights themselves, makeovers could be ahead. The Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Sciences has a traffic light subcommittee that presents new research on traffic signal safety at the board’s annual meeting each January. Upcoming topics of interest are likely to include computerized traffic signals that can respond to traffic flow by switching to green sooner when there’s no congestion ahead, as well as a recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that found that traffic lights are easily hacked, which could lead to traffic jams and collisions. Preventing some of the hacking could be as simple as strengthening the passwords of the engineers who control the traffic signals, according to computer engineers at MIT.

Wendy Landman, executive director of the pedestrian advocacy group Walk Boston, says intersections could be safer if city agencies talked more. She said the deciding factor for how long a traffic signal should be green for pedestrians is often based on how quickly traffic experts think drivers want to be back on the gas pedal—but that may be too short for many pedestrians, especially at intersections on main roads.

>>Bonus Content: Read a previous NewPublicHealth interview with Andrea Gielen.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.

Reducing Environmental Risks for Kids in Schools

Aug 28, 2014, 12:09 PM

Most parents send their children off to school expecting they’ll have their minds enriched and expanded—they don’t expect that their kids’ health to be jeopardized.

But the reality is that the environmental conditions in aging or deteriorating school facilities can harm kids’ health and compromise their ability to learn. This is partly because children may be exposed to a variety of environmental hazards—such as lead, asbestos, molds, radon and volatile organic compounds—as well as toxic chemicals and pesticides at school. Half of U.S. schools have problems with indoor air quality, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and research suggests that the poorest children in the poorest neighborhoods have schools that are in the worst condition.

Sixty percent of kids suffer health and learning problems that stem from the conditions of their schools, according to the Coalition for Healthier Schools’ Towards Healthy Schools 2015 report. Children are especially vulnerable because they’re smaller; their organs are still developing; they spend more time on the ground; and they breathe more air and drink more water per pound of body weight than do adults, according to the EPA. They also may not be able to identify obvious hazards and move away from them.

Reducing environmental risks in schools offers significant payoffs in multiple domains. Improving indoor air quality can reduce asthma attacks by nearly 40 percent and upper respiratory infections by more than 50 percent, according to the 2006 report Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits. What’s more, a study weighing the costs and benefits of developing green schools for Washington State estimated a 15 percent reduction in absenteeism and a 5 percent increase in test scores, according to the Towards Healthy Schools 2015 report.

“A healthy school has a building that promotes health and learning—it will be clean, dry, and quiet. It will have good control of dust and particulate matter. It will provide good ventilation and good air quality,” said Claire Barnett, founder and executive director of the Healthy Schools Network Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to children’s environmental health and safety in schools. “This also assumes there’s no lead in the pipes, no PCBs in lighting or other old building materials, and no routine spraying of pesticides indoors or out. It shouldn’t be hard to have a building that meets these standards but it is. Parents shouldn’t take it for granted that a school facility is healthy.”

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The Walking School Bus: A Safe and Active Way to Get Kids to School

Aug 26, 2014, 1:23 PM

With research indicating that fewer children are walking or biking to school than in decades past—and with the childhood obesity epidemic in full swing—health experts have been brainstorming solutions that would address both issues. In recent years, a simple but effective concept has been gaining traction at the grass-roots level: Why not organize a “Walking School Bus”—a group of kids who walk to school with one or more adults, so that kids can get exercise on their way to and from school?

A Walking School Bus is “just like a regular school bus, but without the walls and seats, and instead of wheels, we use our feet,” explained LeeAnne Fergason, education director for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, Ore., which has a thriving Walking School Bus program. Other communities around the country that have well-established Walking School Bus programs include Chapel Hill, N.C.; Sacramento, Calif.; Burlington, Vt.; Columbia, Mo.; and Duluth, Ga. In the Fall of 2014, many more schools—including Grand View Elementary in Manhattan Beach, Calif.; Greenacres Elementary in Scarsdale, N.Y.; Madison Elementary in Redondo Beach, Calif.; and several elementary schools in Spokane, Wash.—will be joining the trend.

Created by the National Center for Safe Routes to School, these programs help kids sneak some extra physical activity into their day while also addressing parents’ concerns about getting their kids to school safely. It can be as simple as a few neighborhood families taking turns walking their kids to school. Or it can be more elaborate, with prearranged routes, timetables and stops along the way to pick up more “passengers”; with this model, there’s usually an adult “driver” at the front and an adult “conductor” bringing up the rear. A variation on this theme, the bicycle train, in which two or more adults accompany and supervise kids as they ride their bikes to school, has also become popular.

Viewed as a way to fight childhood obesity, improve school attendance rates and ensure that kids get to school safely, the Walking School Bus concept is garnering positive reviews from public health experts. In July 2013, Michelle Obama voiced her support of these programs in her remarks to mayors gathered at the White House.

“I've heard more and more of this kind of walking school bus happening all over the country—so that kids can get exercise on the way to school, kind of like we did when we were growing up," she said. “It’s about people all across this country coming together to take action to support the health of our kids.”

Besides providing an opportunity for movement, the Walking School Bus also allows kids to socialize with their peers, gain a bit of independence and learn important road safety skills. All of these benefits are also important for children’s health and wellbeing.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.

Healthy Communities: The Building Blocks of a Culture of Health

Aug 25, 2014, 9:15 AM, Posted by Jamie Bussel

Girl with helmet riding bike near school.

What do Corvallis, Ore.; Baldwin Park, Calif.; and Buffalo, N.Y. have in common? It certainly isn’t their weather.

Hint—the commonality is something much more relevant to RWJF’s newly refined mission. These three cities are building a Culture of Health for all their citizens. They are tapping into the skills and resources of a diverse group of partners to ensure everyone has access to healthy choices. It’s their collective efforts, along with dozens of other communities supported by the Foundation’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) program, that make me so optimistic about our organizational goal.

My strong belief that environments—physical, social and educational—play a prominent role in our individual health and well-being is what initially drew me to RWJF. So, in 2008, I excitedly embraced the opportunity to be the national program officer for HKHC, which addressed the root causes of childhood obesity by transforming the physical activity and food environments in which children and their families live, learn and play.

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