We Need to Build Back Better for Kids
October is Children’s Environmental Health Month, and a perfect time to reflect on the essence of our work and its connections to a cleaner, healthier, and equitable environment.
Our vision for children in cities is simple: we envision a world where all babies — regardless of their genetic code or their zip code — live in neighborhoods free from toxic chemicals that harm their brain development.
We want to see cities where actions to protect babies’ brain development are as common as planting trees. And, we need to build cities where no children are hindered intellectually (and later financially and emotionally) due to exposure to neurotoxic chemicals in our food, water, and air.
HBBF’s Bright Cities program transitions proven strategies that address social determinants of health and protect babies’ brain development to other organizations and cities so this work can be replicated across the country. This work sits at the intersection of various issues: our strategies overlap with green infrastructure, healthy housing, environmentally preferable purchasing, and more generally on sustainability, climate, and resilience planning.
Addressing Social Determinants of Health in Cities
Mayor Steve Benjamin of Bright City Columbia, SC, said it best: “ The link between health and sustainability is at the very core of Bright Cities. With one outstanding program, we positively impacted two of our city’s priorities: the health of our babies and a clean environment.”
Columbia’s Forestry and Beautification Department planted southern live oak trees in the historic Heathwood neighborhood. The new trees helped mitigate vehicular-related air pollution after the local school built tennis courts and an athletic field in the area. The tree planting played a critical role in creating a shared and healthier path forward for residents, and serves as a replicable strategy for cities looking to reduce air pollutants.
Pine Bluff, Arkansas, joined the Bright Cities program earlier this year and gleaned learnings from Columbia’s project. Their Parks and Recreation Department will help make parks safer for children and families — and meet sustainability goals — by testing water in public drinking fountains for lead, tree planting, community education about lead-safe soils, and community garden efforts.
The Importance of Knowledge Sharing & Storytelling
“We, as a broader community practice, haven’t done a good job in telling the story of why climate action — like tree planting and others — does things like improve air quality, deliver on equity goals, improve public health, prevent flooding [or] reduce congestion,” said Jake Elder, Senior Lead in Bloomberg Associates Sustainability Practice.
Jake’s group released a pragmatic and accessible report presentation this summer — Accelerating Climate Action in Cities — that identifies existing gaps when it comes to impact evaluation of policies, particularly around non-climate and equity impacts like reducing exposures of our kiddos to environmental toxins. In a nutshell, the authors advocate for creative approaches to spur action across city government. Mayors and other city leaders should focus on changing underlying systems to embed climate considerations in the nuts and bolts of city operations. Similarly, Bright Cities advocates that strategies to reduce neurotoxic exposures can and should be embedded in climate, sustainability, and resilience planning.
At the same time, cities need to efficiently communicate a compelling narrative that shows how proactive climate action — and reducing exposure to neurotoxic chemicals — improves quality of life for their residents.
Building a Healthier Future
What can we do together to build a healthier future? Let’s take it one step at a time, but take the time to take one step a day. For many cities, “green infrastructure” projects solve a variety of environmental issues. Green infrastructure projects include activities like tree planting, helping trees thrive with less pesticides, or planting vegetative barriers to remove air toxics.
These diverse actions help to weave a net of resilience for the children. Bright Cities’ actions — including the integration of strategies to reduce neurotoxic exposures into energy efficiency programs and local ordinances — provide scalable models ready for uptake by other US cities.
But the ultimate winners are the babies in our lives whose health — and opportunity for a fairer start in life — is dramatically improved.
Is your City interested in being part of Healthy Babies Bright Futures’ Bright Cities program? To discuss this and anything else, please contact Bright Cities Program Director, Kyra Naumoff Shields at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published at https://www.hbbf.org.