A conversation with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director, American Public Health Association
This month WaterNow Alliance and our members and partners had the opportunity to connect with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association (APHA), during our webinar, “Tap into Climate Resilience: Health and Equity Benefits of Localized GSI”. In case you missed it, you can view the recording here. Since 2002, Dr. Benjamin has been leading the APHA’s push to make America the healthiest nation in one generation. WaterNow spoke with Dr. Benjamin following the webinar to learn more about the critical connection between our built environmental and public health, and the important role that greenstormwater infrastructure can play in improving our nation’s health.
In the water sector, we typically think of greenstormwater infrastructure as a tool to help us manage our stormwater quality and quantity but from your presentation we heard that it also can have a profound effect on our health. What are the primary public health benefits of incorporating GSI like green roofs, bioswales and permeable pavements into our communities?
The fundamental benefit is that it reduces the heat in urban settings. It’s one of many tools we can use to try to address issues surrounding our built environment that perpetuate cities being hotter and more people being at risk to heat related injury.
And, of course, to the extent that you’re improving the efficacy of using and reusing water for heating and cooling buildings, then you can also reduce your energy usage which leads to both lower costs down the line and reduced fossil fuel emissions that cause climate change.
You shared with us during the webinar that lower income areas in cities are typically 10 degrees hotter than higher income areas. What health implications is this having on people in lower income neighborhoods?
We know that lower income communities are disproportionately affected by chronic disease that are heat sensitive such as heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes. Obviously if a community is hotter, people are much less likely to go out and exercise. All of these things results in exacerbation of these chronic diseases which makes people less healthy overall. And there’s a fiscal cost to this too, because people with these chronic diseases need to go to the doctor more often.
Hearing these statistics, what should our cities and water agencies be doing to ensure that GSI, and other mitigation tools like reflective roofs and solar panels, are implemented in the low income neighborhoods that need it most?
I think they need to begin considering these tools earlier in the decision-making process and the construction process as part of local government’s responsibility for regulating the buildings. They should be using smart growth and smart surface strategies to do this.
They also need to engage the state or local public health department early on in the decision-making process and adopt a “health in all policies” approach for new construction and even for renovating infrastructure. All of these decisions should be integrated with public health processes as we move forward.
Thinking of water utilities as part of your public health workforce, what would be the top three things we should argue for in federal stimulus to improve health equity?
First, I think we need to make sure that the government has a plan so that everyone equal access to testing for the virus. Second, I think we need to make sure that there’s a plan at the federal and the local-level to ensure equal access to the vaccine and therapeutics. And third, we need increased adequate data systems so that we can follow our progress and we know who’s impacted. It’s not just data, it’s good data that allows us to target those communities and help mitigate the disease.
Lastly, the built environment has a profound impact and we need to figure out how we capture the fiscal benefit on both water management and public health. If we do this right, there are savings in both areas.