In recent years, a number of organizations and programs have sprung up to ensure that homes, offices, schools, and neighborhoods are built and maintained in an environmentally friendly way. Increasingly, we want buildings to be constructed with renewable, sustainable materials and development projects to use less energy, conserve fresh water, contribute less to air and water pollution, and create more parks and green spaces. Now, improving public health has been added to those goals.
In 2014, the Health Impact Project, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Enterprise Green Communities, and the University of Virginia School of Medicine formed a partnership to look at how building design could help improve public health. The collaboration is already yielding results: USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which sets criteria for environmentally friendly building projects and certifies that they have been met, is piloting a new design credit that specifically addresses health.
LEED’s system awards credits for projects that are energy-efficient, use sustainable building materials, include abundant green space, and pursue innovative solutions that are better for the environment and for communities. Certification is based on a system of credits, in which some are mandatory and others are optional. Periodically, LEED introduces additional credit options through pilot programs. If a pilot is successful, the credit becomes permanently available.
The new LEED pilot credit, called “Integrative Process for Health Promotion,” draws on the principles of health impact assessment. It guides project teams through a systematic evaluation of potential health impacts on the families who will live, work, and play in the community, and rewards teams that emphasize strategies that meet health needs. For example, if an organization is building a school in an area with high asthma rates, it can now receive credit for partnering with public health professionals and community stakeholders to prioritize building elements that improve health. That might include using air filtration systems and avoiding building materials that can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory conditions.
A growing body of research shows that health is strongly influenced by neighborhood factors. The pilot highlights the need for green building and public health professionals to work together to incorporate health considerations into project plans, especially in communities that are plagued by chronic health problems associated with a lack of access to parks, safe streets, quality housing, and other health-promoting features.
The LEED process has encouraged green building for nearly two decades. If successful, this pilot credit will be adopted permanently and will help elevate public health considerations among developers as they plan projects and seek certification.
The pilot credit comes on the heels of similar integrated design criteria launched in 2015 by Enterprise Green Communities. With funding from the Health Impact Project, Enterprise recently announced $10,000 grants to community development organizations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, New York, and Hammond, Louisiana, to support adoption of the criteria. The grantees will work with public health professionals to embed health considerations into affordable housing projects.
LEED and Enterprise already lead the nation’s green building efforts, and their latest initiatives will set a new standard for creating healthy and vibrant communities. These programs translate what we have learned through research about the connections between housing and community development and health into changes that can improve the health and well-being of families in neighborhoods across the country.
Rebecca Morley directs the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.