Jeremijenko: “Health Is Not Just Internal”

In a recent TED talk, Natalie Jeremijenko, an innovative professor and artist who runs the Environmental Health Clinic at New York University, explains how to use “collective action” to build awareness about the importance of healthy environments. Through a set of creative and often funny urban experiments, she shows how neighborhood activists, researchers, and designers can demonstrate to people that “health is not just internal or pharmaceutical.” 

First off, Jeremijenko argues that the external environment does have significant health implications. She points to a survey of New York pediatricians that found they spend a bulk of their time on a few health issues directly tied to the environment: childhood developmental delays, asthma, obesity, and diabetes. Indeed, for most health issues, the “environment is radically implicated.” Health is shared and not entirely “genetically predetermined.”  

Jeremijenko is all about making public health education and colllective action engaging and fun. The idea is that healthy wildlife are indicators of healthy environments, which are needed to create healthy people. She also points to a few projects that frame health in an external way and focus on the importance of improving water quality and fighting climate change.

In one of her projects, she named tadpoles after local water policymakers and bureaucrats. Fashioning a sort of “tadpole walker” for them, researchers and neighborhood activists then took their tadpoles out for a stroll, using them to discuss water quality issues. “Tadpoles are very sensitive environmental sensors. They are meaningful sensors for endocrine disrupters.” Once a neighbor asks “why are you walking your tadpole?,”  there’s an opportunity to engage in a discussion about why tadpoles are important and how endocrine disruptors are implicated in many health issues. Those into the idea can even set up Web sites for them: “People can do social networking with their tadpoles.”

She set up an experiment on mice living in Manhattan apartments and found that they have similar health issues given they share the same diet and same stressors as many of the people whose apartments they are living in. Her research found that “mice in Manhattan apartments would also self-administer anti-depressants.” In addition, given the choice, “they drank as much vodka as plain water.”

Another project focused on restoring wildlife to urban environments. Bronx OOZ “aims to reinvent our relationship with natural systems” by offering “wild animal safaris” within cities. She says this type of development is inevitable. “Animals are moving in. Wild animals are now in urban centers. Coyotes are in central park. Whales are now in harbours.” However, to date, people have lacked imagination about how to create habitat for animals in cities. At the Whitney museum on the Upper East Side, she developed a communications system that can be triggered by bird landings. Pigeons were able to test which message elicted the best behavior from humans. 100 to 1 birds chose one message on bird health that also asked humans to share their lunch. Another commission for the Architectural League of New York involved setting up buoys in the rivers around Manhattan used for communicating with fish. The buoys display water quality but were also used to send text messages to the visiting fish.

On water quality, Jeremijenko thinks it’s important to focus on street runoff pollution, now the “source of most water pollution in cities.” She calls for removing asphalt in favor of green streets or rain gardens that create a “micro-landscape” and offer infiltration opportunities. She sees emergency vehicle parking spaces turned into rain gardens. If an ambulance or fire truck needs to use the space, they can simply drive over the plants. “We can flatten the plants and they can regenerate. No big deal.” Also, she says if we use use every emergency parking space, we can “redefine the emergency.”

With the climate crisis, there is also a “secondary, more insidious crisis” — a “crisis of agency.” Meaning: people feel as if they have no control over how the climate changes. During the Cold War, the fall-out shelter served as an “icon of civic response.” But “what is the fall-out shelter for climate change?” Jeremijenko thinks it should be intensive urban agriculture facilities set up on rooftops. Each farm would consume the CO2 emissions emitted by buildings’ HVAC and boiler systems (In NYC, 80-90 percent of CO2 emissions are created by buildings). The CO2 would be funneled through “solar chimneys,” which would also be designed to catch the worst black carbon soot (grime), the result of “inefficient combustion.” She has school kids setting up these systems on roofs and using the grime to fashion black soot pencils.

Other recent TED talks worth checking out: Using Nature’s Genius in Architecture, which covers biomimetic design, and How the Market Keeps Streams Flowing, which explains how to use market mechanisms to prevent over-use of scarce natural water resources.

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