Now Viewing: Built Environment and Health

How Taking a Simple Quiz Reaffirmed My Love For Global Learning

Aug 12, 2021, 1:00 PM, Posted by Shuma Panse

Can the bold ideas needed to advance health equity be found beyond our borders? A global learner reflects on the value of looking abroad for solutions and the 12-question quiz that can help us all get started.

The Blue Marble

One out of four people living in the United States today are either immigrants or children of immigrants. That’s approximately 85 million people, all of whom have connections to other countries and cultures. I’m one of those people. While I was born in Michigan and call New Jersey home today, I’ve spent considerable time visiting, living and working in Mumbai—the city my parents migrated from and where my public health career kicked off.

My connection to my country of origin—through ties to family and friends, time spent living and visiting there, language and culture—has profoundly shaped me and made me the person I am today. Perhaps most importantly, though, it has fostered a deep appreciation for the many different ways people experience, live day-to-day and move through the world—and the great possibilities for learning this brings. Years ago, as a new mother in the United States, I benefited enormously from Indian postpartum food traditions, lovingly prepared for me by my mother and mother-in-law. Now, with school-age children, I wonder which Indian teaching methods could be helpful, trading notes with my cousins and their kids.

These types of exchanges have enriched my life, and I often hear the same sentiment from friends and colleagues with immigrant backgrounds from various other countries. Moreover, they remind us that the way things are done in the U.S. isn’t the only way to do things. Countries around the globe, from Brazil to Malawi, are finding creative ways to overcome similar health challenges to the ones we’re facing in the U.S. By looking beyond our borders, we can uncover new inspiration for advancing health and health equity across our communities.

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Bringing Clean, Running Water to the Navajo Nation

May 3, 2021, 12:45 PM, Posted by Cindy Howe

Broken promises and structural racism have deprived New Mexico’s Navajo Nation of safe, running water for generations. A Navajo woman shares how she is actively changing this reality, one family at a time.

Darlene Arviso fills water tanks for Navajo tribal members. The "Water Lady" Darlene Arviso fills water tanks for Navajo tribal members who do not have access to running water. Photo credit: DigDeep, 2019.

Go to the sink, turn on the tap, get yourself a glass of water. To most people in America, this sounds like the most routine of activities. But for the families I work with on the lands of the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico, it is not something we can take for granted. And so when water does flow from a faucet inside a home for the first time, the tears often flow with it. This is a moment of deep gratitude and joy for us.

Tó éí ííńá át’é. In the Navajo language, that means water is life. You’ll see these words painted onto our homes and graffitied across the landscape because we understand that life can not be sustained without water. In our culture, it is a sacred element, along with Earth, fire, and air.

And yet almost one-third of my tribe lacks running water. Pause for a moment to consider what that means. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that people in America use an average of 80-100 gallons of water every day. Our families know how to preserve scarce resources, so we use a lot less than that—but meeting basic water needs is still a complex, time-consuming task. Imagine the difficulty of attaching a hose to a 55-gallon water barrel, filling a bucket, and hauling it inside every time you want to cook, bathe, do laundry, or clean the house. Add in the costs of buying bottled water to make sure that what you drink is safe.  

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Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and the Rise of Local Solutions

Apr 15, 2021, 1:00 PM, Posted by Sharon Roerty

How can U.S. cities inspire us to tackle climate change and its health impacts? An urban alchemist-turned-funder shares reflections on where we’ve been and where we’re headed with the movement for environmental justice in the United States and abroad.

Volunteers work on an urban farm operating as a community project.

Earth Day will be 51 years young this April 22nd—and I have been a witness to every one of them. The environmental activism that it launched and inspired has shaped me as an individual, shaped culture in the U.S. and beyond, and shaped the planet we all share. And it continues to evolve, as evident by the present-day focus on environmental justice and disproportionate health impacts felt by low-income communities and communities of color. As a child of the 1970s, I have seen momentous changes—environmental policies and discoveries that pointed in the right direction, setbacks and disappointments, and profiles in courage.

As a youngster, I drew inspiration from the boldness of Jacque Cousteau, the brilliance of Jane Goodall, and the courage of Norma Rae. As an adult, I look to the power of local change agents like Majora Carter of South Bronx, NYC and Margie Eugene-Richard of Southern Louisiana. In my lifetime, I have seen the institution of recycling, lead removed from gasoline and paint, asbestos banned from buildings, and consumer preference shift toward plant-based cleaning products and chemical-free food. I am excited by the burgeoning international movement for green schoolyards. I have also seen devastating environmental crises in places like Love Canal, N.Y., Flint, Mich., the Gulf of Mexico, and Prince William Sound. All of these represent both the incredible harm and good we can do when we act collectively.

I hope in my lifetime to witness less David vs. Goliath battles for the environment and a reckoning of environmental injustices. I have hope to share.

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Energy, Water and Broadband: Three Services Crucial To Health Equity

Sep 10, 2020, 10:00 AM, Posted by Pamela Russo

Imagine enduring the COVID-19 pandemic without running water, reliable internet or affordable gas and electricity. While many have faced this stark reality, communities around the nation are working to build health and equity into these services.

Power line at twilight.

As COVID-19 swept our nation this year, the important influence utility services have on our health became clearer than ever. Running water is essential for washing hands to prevent infection. Electricity keeps individuals and families comfortable while they follow recommendations to stay home. And internet access allows employees to work from home, children to learn remotely while schools remain closed, patients to access needed health check-ups, and all of us to stay connected.

Conveniently powering up our laptops, logging onto the internet and turning on the faucet are things many of us take for granted. But the COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed fault lines in America’s aging infrastructure. These inequities especially impact people of color, rural and tribal communities, and low-income households. For them, energy, water, and broadband are often unavailable, unaffordable, unreliable—and even unsafe.

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In West Baltimore, Physical Distancing Was a Way of Life Before COVID-19

Jun 1, 2020, 10:00 AM, Posted by Yolanda Ogbolu

Further physical distancing during COVID-19 has made us find creative and generous ways to strengthen connections.

Illustration of a family.

Imagine what it’s like to live on a block where elderly neighbors are bolted behind their front doors for fear of venturing out. Where parents worry daily about safety, so they resist letting children play in the neighborhood. Where more than half of the houses lie empty.

These images are not consequences of life under a pandemic. This was life pre-COVID-19 for the Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up and now work as a nurse researcher.  

For the past year, my research team at the University of Maryland, the Black Mental Health Alliance, the PATIENTS program, and B’more for Healthy Babies at Promise Heights, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has been listening to residents of two disadvantaged neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Residents told us they were “self-isolating” from family, neighbors and the community to cope with living in a neighborhood where they don’t feel supported, safe, or connected.

As one resident put it: “A lot of things scare us...it makes us not want to allow our kids to go to the recs that open because we fear that a drive by [shooting] or...standing in the doorway you can get shot.”

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Global Approaches to Curb the Health Impact of Climate Change

Mar 23, 2020, 8:45 AM, Posted by Sharon Roerty

Cities from around the world have a lot to teach us about improving our planet's health. Their efforts can inspire us to be resourceful, creative, and inclusive as we work to tackle climate change and its health impacts.

A view of mountains and a bay.

In times of crisis, it becomes readily apparent how interconnected we are and that sharing learning around what works and what doesn’t is of utmost importance.

We are seeing this with COVID-19, as learning from Singapore, from Italy, from South Korea and from China is informing the efforts of other countries—including the U.S. response.

The same is true of climate change.

A recent survey found that the proportion of Americans who are concerned about climate change tripled over the last five years and is now at an all-time high. 

Whether it’s raging wildfires; stronger, bigger hurricanes and tornadoes; more extreme heat events; or worsening air pollution, people in cities across the United States and around the world are seeing, living and having to manage the impact.  

What’s worse is that damage caused by global climate change magnifies inequities, placing the most vulnerable communities and individuals at greatest risk. Historic and social factors, such as access to health care; where you live or work; your age; and your income can all impact how and how much climate change harms your health.

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Why Neighborhoods—and the Policies that Shape Them—Matter

Jan 23, 2020, 2:00 PM, Posted by Dolores Acevedo-Garcia

The Child Opportunity Index 2.0 uses contemporary data to measure and map inequities in all 72,000 neighborhoods in the United States. The tool helps researchers, city planners, community leaders and others identify and address inequities in their metros.  

Boys and girls run and play in the park. Image credit: iStock

The Tale of Two Boys Growing Up in Cleveland

Let’s ask two hypothetical 9-year-old boys a question: What is it like to grow up in Cleveland? 

Each boy attends school, and enjoys riding his bike and playing with Legos. Both live in Cleveland. Beyond these similarities, their life experiences are—and will continue to be—starkly different based on multiple, complex factors that lie within their neighborhoods.

Neighborhood A 

The boy living in Neighborhood A faces a host of obstacles to opportunity and well-being. 

Economic adversity is the norm. One in four families struggle with poverty, and nearly 83 percent of his peers in school need free or reduced-price lunch.

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How Bitter Melon Improved Housing in Providence, Rhode Island

Dec 9, 2019, 9:45 AM, Posted by Angela Bannerman Ankoma, Sharon Conard-Wells

Many housing projects focus exclusively on putting a roof over peoples’ heads. We sought a broader approach that integrates cultural values into kitchens, homes and neighborhoods.

Illustration of a neighborhood.

The literal translation of the word “sankofa,” from the Akan tribe in Ghana, means "go back and fetch it.” Figuratively, it captures an important belief in Akan culture: While the future brings new learning, knowledge from the past must not be forgotten.

This principle guided our efforts to transform 10 formerly blighted lots into a vibrant community of 50 modern “green” apartments in Providence, Rhode Island’s diverse West End community. The $13.5 million development is connected to 30,000 square feet of community garden space. Single fathers come with sons, pastors come with children and people sit under the garden’s pergola, which was built by local youth volunteers. It is, as one article put it, a “beehive of activity.”

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Home Is Where Our Health Is

Jul 22, 2019, 12:00 PM, Posted by Jessica Mark, Najaf Ahmad

Where we live affects how long and how well we live. Yet, affordable housing is out of reach for too many. RWJF is addressing housing stability, equity, and health through data and research.

Everyone should have the opportunity to live in a safe community.

There is growing evidence that safe and secure housing is a critical factor in achieving good health. Where we live can determine whether we’re connected to: safe places to play and be active; quality jobs and schools; and transportation to get us where we need to go. Yet millions of people in America live in substandard or overcrowded housing, temporary shelters, in cars, and on streets. Disadvantages also exist for the many living in residentially segregated neighborhoods isolated from opportunity. For them and others, the inability to access quality housing and neighborhoods deepens challenges and makes it much more difficult to be healthy and break out of poverty. 

Housing’s profound effect on health is often overlooked and misunderstood. This year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), led by President and CEO Richard Besser, MD, is shining a light on the link between housing and health. In his Annual Message, Besser discusses how safe and affordable housing supports positive outcomes across the lifespan—and how unsafe and insecure housing can deepen inequity and undermine a Culture of Health. 

He shares stories from housing initiatives across the country—from Boligee, Ala., to Chelsea, Mass., to San Antonio. These examples show that when we improve the quality and affordability of housing—health and lives also improve. Creating safe and affordable housing—as an essential part of comprehensive efforts to transform impoverished neighborhoods into places of opportunity—becomes a pathway to helping communities thrive.

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How Supportive Housing Uplifts Families in Crisis

Oct 15, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by Kerry Anne McGeary

Irma’s troubled life culminated in being thrown down the stairs when she was six months pregnant. Thanks to a program that’s addressing system-wide change, Irma and her family are now safe and secure with a new home and a brighter future. 

Supportive Housing program case worker, Melissa Rowe (right) with her client Irma and three of Irma's four children. Supportive Housing program case worker, Melissa Rowe (in white shirt) with her client Irma and three of Irma's four children: Joel, age 5, Delicia, age 3 and Julio, age 18 months.

Editor’s Note: Although foster care placement is sometimes necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of children, research indicates that keeping families together is generally better for children, parents, and the community. Working with the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) launched the Keeping Families Together (KFT) pilot in 2007 to explore whether supportive housing can help vulnerable families grow stronger, safer and healthier so that children—and their parents—may thrive. With the release of new findings from a federal demonstration project inspired by KFT, we are resurfacing this post.  

From too early an age, Irma faced a seemingly endless series of traumatic events that life threw at her as best she could—on her own.

But after a domestic crisis left her hospitalized, homeless, jobless, and in danger of losing her infant son, Irma finally received help from a supportive housing program that changed her life.

Keeping Families Together—the RWJF-supported model for the program that helped Irma turn her life around—has become my own personal touchstone for what building a Culture of Health should look like in the real world.

Irma’s story illustrates both the power of this model and the inner resilience that so many struggling families possess.

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