Translating Research into Practice: An Interview with the Center for Health & Global Environment

From by Harriet Kim
Translating Research into Practice: An Interview with the Center for Health & Global Environment

At Harvard University, the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHGE) is helping people understand how our health depends on a healthy environment. Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Joseph Allen, Assistant Professor at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Director of the CHGE Healthy Buildings Program, and Dr. Aaron Berstein, Associate Director and Climate, Energy, and Health Program Director.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved with the Center?

Joseph Allen (JA): I joined the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Center at the same time in April of 2014. The motivation behind the Healthy Buildings Program stems from the facts that the average American spends approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, and 90 percent of the costs of a building are the people inside. We are really good at measuring the 10 percent -- outdoor air pollution, and the energy and water use in a building. Our mission in the Healthy Buildings Program is to focus on the 90 percent and research the connections between the indoor built environment and occupant health, wellbeing, and productivity.

Aaron Bernstein (AB): I joined the Center in 2001 and am now its Associate Director. I began working on a project addressing the importance of biodiversity for human health. This project took eight years and culminated in a book called Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity.  The book presents all the ways health depends on biodiversity. Since then, I have been involved other programs and now lead the program on Climate, Energy, and Health.

FT: What are the connections between buildings, nature, biodiversity, and health?

AB: Many buildings and their occupants have exposure to green space. However, relatively little is known about how human exposure to green space affects health, which is an important relationship to explore as more people live in cities and become less exposed to nature.

JA: It is worth taking a look at a recent study by the Center’s Director, Jack Spengler, with other Harvard faculty and students. It found a strong association between access to nature and test scores of students. This study, along with others, is beginning to shape additional research questions on the link between nature and health. We intuitively know the answer to these questions – spending time in nature is good for us – but now we need to understand how and why.

For buildings, we recently published a paper reviewing the evidence around green buildings and health. We find, overall, there are health benefits associated with living and working in green buildings. We also point out that this type of research is still in its infancy, much like the research on health and nature. A lot of research currently done on buildings tends to focus on one pollutant or exposure. When you are thinking of the entire building complex, however, there is a totality of factors in the building environment that influences productivity and health. We need to embrace the complexity that exists in the built environment and the many factors influencing our health; from ventilation and building design, material selection, access to nature, and water and energy usage. We propose a ‘building-omics’ approach, much like the Human Genome Project but for buildings. It’s time for the same thinking around buildings, and with the proliferation of affordable sensors, we can do this. Our Sensors for Health group at Harvard is working towards this goal.

FT: What is the advantage of looking at both healthy buildings and healthy cities separately? How do they complement each other in creating healthier built environments overall? 

JA: A critical difference is in the scale being studied presents different levels of control. Building owners can shape factors related to their specific building, such as siting, material selection, and ventilation rate. The other end of the scale is the urban design perspective and the bigger impact of all buildings in the community, which influences at a level outside of a building owner.

FT: As an official Collaborating Center, can you tell us about the Center’s relationship with the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP)? 

AB: Our Center’s founders, Eric Chivian and Paul Epstein, went to the Rio Summit (also known as the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. At this summit, climate change and other global environmental problems were discussed without consideration of what they meant to people’s health.The Center was created to study and communicate the connections between global environmental change and health. UNEP has been engaged with the Center from the beginning and its longstanding relationship has evolved over the years. Our work on issues such as biodiversity and climate change is in collaboration with UNEP.

FT: What does the process look like when translating the Center’s research into concrete, personal terms, especially when speaking about the built environment?

JA: Public health scientists have a duty to make sure their work is relevant and put into practice – too often great research gets buried in academic journals. A real strength of the Center is our Advisory Council and Corporate Council ensuring our research focuses on real-world issues. The communications team in our Center does a terrific job of translating our research and findings into messaging that is accessible and reaches diverse audiences.

FT: Can you tell us about the evolving dynamic of the programs provided by the Center? 

AB: The policy and education programs were offered then based on the interest of faculty and advisors. The scope of the Center’s activities evolves over time.

JA: The programs at the Center are dynamic; they are always evolving and growing. For example, we have expanded with programs on sustainable tourism, sustainable seafood, the built environment, executive education, and sustainable technology. We have several projects underway in China, as well as in Spain and Mexico. We have proposals to expand our work to India and parts of Africa. For the Healthy Buildings Program, we have added several key partners this year, and we continue to expand. There is a growing recognition of the importance of buildings to our health, both directly, through impact on the occupants, and indirectly, through contributions to climate change. Our partners are joining with us to advance this work.

 FT: How can urban planners better integrate healthy environments and healthy food into the planning process? 

AB: Cities are the crucible of innovation. Particularly for innovation in the built environment, city programs have driven a large part of changes we see. Urban planners have a huge role in addressing the challenges we face moving forward: how to get food and energy into the city, how to produce food more closely to where people live, and more broadly, how to make urban life as sustainable as possible. Better integration of urban planning and public health would benefit our cities greatly. Joe does a great deal work to pioneer this work. In a city like Boston, Massachusetts, it is one of the energy leaders in the country with an emerging model for urban planning and public health.

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