GreenBuild 2015 Session Spotlight - Health & Sustainability in the Built Environment

Master Speaker Series - Dr. Donald Schwarz (Director, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) -

Photo of Bamboo 'Forest Therapy' in Japan -Creative Commons

Photo of Bamboo 'Forest Therapy' in Japan -Creative Commons

On Thursday morning of the GreenBuild 2015 conference, after a long search through the mis-labeled convention center in DC (literally a flood of about 50 people all walking from one corner “Hall D” to the other corner “Ballroom D” for this session), I sat down for a Master Series session on public health. Dr. Donald Schwarz, a former commissioner on public health for Philadelphia, now working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, shared stories and data further proving the nexus between our built environment and public health. Big surprise – most of the strategies we talk about for New Urbanism or Smart Growth, and sustainability at the community scale – achieve both sustainability and health goals!

The session started off with a set of images and word-play about Italy’s cultural and financial relationship with tomatoes. (As a side-note, who knew that tomatoes didn’t come to Italy until the mid-1800’s, originating from Peru?!) Interestingly, after becoming central to Italian culture, Schwarz noted, tomatoes became a driving force for the way agriculture is done in the country. Specifically, he talked about how much small-scale farming there is in Italy(best tomatoes come from), compared to only a few industrial farms in the country. Then came the really exciting conversation; how the economy, built environment, and food culture in Italy all drive each other as a system. In context then, our culture of health management in the US, our built environment, and associated economy, can influence each other in many ways – and that community health can be a driver of sustainability and social equity (triple bottom line!).

Probably the most shocking graphics from this session included maps of income levels, mortality, chronic disease, and education levels across LA County. Super-imposed on each other, it is astounding how closely demographic boundaries overlap in each of these scenarios. The data shows a very close nexus between culture, our community structure (design for accessibility and planning strategies), and our health and wellbeing.

This plays off of a favorite session from last year as well, a session about biomimicry, urban planning, and public health – a trend we hope will give us the momentum and public support we need as sustainability advocates. If we can’t push ourselves to live more sustainably just for long-term environmental benefits, maybe it’s the immediate public health opportunities, and the dollars we’ll save in so doing, that’ll get us one step closer to a sustainable future. As Bob Berkebile has said in his presentations, "what will our children see in 2020, the year of perfect vision?" Seemingly far away, as that blurred future comes into focus over the next five years, I know I personally hope to see a healthy, bio-diverse community in San Diego – one rooted in ecological, financial, and social resilience.

Building upon this inspiration and data, the San Diego Green Building Council will be hosting a handful of sessions in 2016, focused on the nexus of health and sustainability and our built environment, as well as on the WELL building standard. Check out our Events Calendar for more info!


For more information, please reach out to:

Ravi Bajaj, LEED AP BD+C, O_M, ID+C

Education Manager, San Diego Green Building Council | 805-368-7670