Now Viewing: Built Environment and Health

Three Lessons on How Communities Can Support the Struggle for Water Justice

Sep 29, 2022, 10:00 AM, Posted by Brenda Santoyo, Jeremiah Muhammad

Access to clean, safe water is a basic human right—a right we strive to protect in our Chicago neighborhood. These important lessons we've learned along the way may help other communities facing similar challenges.

Water Pipe and Scales

The Flint water crisis prompted anxious school districts nationwide, including ours in Chicago, to test water in our public schools. The results were alarming: Thirty-seven percent of schools had levels of lead in the water fountains that were far above the federal limit.

This was the beginning of our journey toward water justice in Little Village.

Little Village is a small, culturally and economically vibrant Chicago neighborhood that is home to many Latine families and children. But industrialization and climate change have posed stark threats to our well-being. To build a healthier community, through the years we have worked alongside courageous local leaders to wage tireless grassroots campaigns. For example, one community-led effort transformed contaminated land into open green space—the first public park to be built in Little Village in 75 years. Another effort succeeded in shutting down a coal plant that was polluting our air with toxic fumes.

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Can Global Insights Help the U.S. Reframe Obesity?

Sep 7, 2022, 10:00 AM, Posted by Tatiana Paz Lemus, Ted Fischer

Diet and physical activity alone do not determine body size. Lessons from abroad reveal how the United States can improve policy around childhood obesity by taking culture into account.

Illustration for blog on weight.

The spread of body positivity is at an all-time high. Celebrities and influencers are celebrating larger bodies. Models of a variety of sizes are promoting beauty and consumer products. And a flood of social media posts and TV shows urge us to love our bodies as they are.

Despite this positive rhetoric, weight bias and fat shaming remain rampant. Thinness is a Western ideal that has had enormous influence around the world, spread first through colonization and echoed today through social media and pop culture. It's an ideal that has racist roots: during the slave trade, middle and upper class white women were told to eat “as little as was necessary in order to show their Christian nature and also their racial superiority” in the words of sociologist Sabrina Strings. Body size became associated with discipline and self-control and used to suggest who did and did not deserve freedom.

Childhood Obesity and Weight Discrimination

While unintentional, anti-fat attitudes have also made their way into public health policy. Take efforts to address childhood obesity: there is no shortage of interventions that concentrate on diet and exercise, based on conventional wisdom that weight gain results from more calories consumed than expended. But this focus on individual behavior feeds into biases that being overweight is the result of a lack of self-discipline or a moral failing. 

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Three Local Policy Solutions That Can Advance Park Equity

Jul 27, 2022, 1:00 PM, Posted by Pamela Russo

Urban parks are a smart investment for health, but not everyone has a park nearby. These local policy solutions can help bring parks to every neighborhood.

Park Equity Graphic

When I want to get some fresh air, exercise outdoors, or connect with the healing power of nature, I go to one of the many green spaces close to my home. These local parks contribute to my mental and physical health, and improve my quality of life considerably.

We all need parks, but not everyone has one nearby. Black, Latino, and other communities of color have fewer parks than white, wealthier neighborhoods. And the parks they do have are half the size and five times more crowded. It’s time to fix this inequity and create parks and green spaces that will serve generations to come.

The Power of Parks

The pandemic underscored just how important parks are to creating strong, healthy communities. Parks protect health and promote mental wellbeing by providing people of all ages and abilities opportunities for physical activity, time in nature, social connection, and respite. Research shows that time in parks can decrease levels of stress and anxiety by 50 percent.

Parks and green spaces also have environmental benefits that can help guard against the health harms of climate change: they cool temperatures, cleanse air, filter stormwater, and replenish groundwater. Research reveals that neighborhoods within half a mile of a large park are six degrees cooler than neighborhoods without nearby parks.

Simply put, urban parks are a smart investment for health and essential community infrastructure that should serve every neighborhood.

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Supportive Housing Can Help End the Homeless-to-Jail Cycle

Jun 23, 2022, 11:00 AM, Posted by Erin Hagan

The best way to break the harmful homelessness-jail cycle? Keep people housed, first; then quickly provide the supportive services they need to thrive.

Hands holding a cardboard house.

Maria* is finally starting to feel at home. After living on the streets for eight years and a brief stint in a halfway house, she now has a permanent home in the Sanderson Apartments in south Denver. “I love my life, and I love myself, and I love my family,” she said, beaming. “And I found myself, found out who I am, where I belong.” The Denver Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond Initiative (Denver SIB) helped her find this stability.

There are many common myths about how to end homelessness. At RWJF’s Evidence for Action program, we wanted to test what truly works. We funded Sarah Gillespie and Dr. Devlin Hanson at the Urban Institute to conduct an evaluation of the Denver SIB program.

What we learned is that supportive housing has several benefits. It can help end the homelessness-to-jail cycle, free up public resources for other priorities, and ultimately, it creates stability for people experiencing homelessness.

Supportive housing seems to be especially beneficial for people with frequent interactions with the criminal justice system, and leads to better health outcomes for individuals and communities. In fact, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has included reducing incarceration among 35 illustrative measures to track progress toward building a Culture of Health in America

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Parks and Green Spaces, For the People and By the People

Oct 25, 2021, 1:00 PM, Posted by Toody Maher

Communities should be empowered to create safe, green, vibrant spaces and parks that everyone can access. Read how a group of citizens worked to support park equity, and how you can play a role, too.

A boy plays on a seesaw in a park.

The first time I visited Elm Playlot was on a bright, sunny afternoon in May 2007.

Elm Playlot is a small, one-half acre pocket park in the heart of Richmond, California’s “Iron Triangle” neighborhood. It is one of the few city parks and playgrounds in the Iron Triangle. The park serves a densely populated, diverse neighborhood that I knew was chock-full of children. However, when I visited Elm Playlot that afternoon in May, I didn’t see a single child playing there.

It wasn’t hard to figure out why.

A group of men sat on Elm Playlot’s benches drinking alcohol. The play structure and swings were tagged top-to-bottom with graffiti and menacing gang slogans. Litter was piled up around the picnic tables, the slide, and the swings: broken glass, hypodermic needles, cigarette butts, used condoms, empty liquor bottles.

Later, in conversations with community residents, I would learn that parents had regularly told their children not to play at Elm Playlot; it was too dangerous.

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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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