On a beautiful Sunday afternoon a group of about 50 of us gathered at the Athens Public Library to consider the complex intersection of issues that comprise physical environment or place and its relation to our health as part of the Russell Library’s fifth event in the 2009 Unnatural Causes Film & Discussion Series. We watched, “Place Matters,” the fifth episode in the Unnatural Causes documentary that considers how policies and investment decisions create living environments that harm—or enhance—the health of residents and what actions can make a difference.
The film looks at several communities across the United States where disadvantaged environmental conditions have damaged the health of those who live there. According to the film, “Studies have shown, for example, that living in a disadvantaged neighborhood leads to a 50-80% increase in risk for heart disease – the number one killer in America. One reason is chronic stress. Worrying about violence, lousy schools, and unpaid bills; living in substandard housing or a polluted environment; not having good access to fresh food, reliable transportation, or safe public spaces – all of these have a negative, even toxic effect on health.” The film also offers a view into some promising projects to address the damage caused by pollution, crime, and substandard housing.
Following the film, program moderator Matt Murphy, Athens-Clarke County’s Affordable Housing Administrator and National Issues Forums Institute-trained moderator, introduced the discussion panelists for the program: Nik Heynen (Dept. of Geography), Robb Nielsen (College of Family and Consumer Sciences), John Vena (College of Public Health), and Crissy Marlowe (Georgia Dept. of Community Affairs). The panelists offered some initial commentary and then Matt opened up the discussion.
Highlights from our discussion (challenging topic!)
- Panelists and audience members expressed frustrations with tackling the complex issues involved with dealing with the place issues present in Athens and surrounding communities.
- One audience member asked why Athens seemed to have so much public housing.
- Another audience member asked what the University’s role was and should be in alleviating the physical environmental concerns in the communities that surround it.
- Another audience member shared the University’s interest and support for the New town Flower Association’s long standing battle to improve health conditions in their neighborhood in Gainesville, Georgia.
- Panelist Chrissy Marlowe discussed the process and the challenges for the public for communicating with local lawmakers about policies that relate to zoning, planning, and environmental health issues.
- The ways in which the public can and cannot influence policy on land use and environmental policy sparked spirited discussion and some frustration.
- Unlike some of the other discussions in the Unnatural Causes Series, Sunday’s discussion reflected a broader range of concerns and much less consensus on how to tackle the constellation of problems subsumed under the umbrella of place matters.
- Moderator Matt Murphy mentioned that Athens Clarke County will get some stimulus funds to work on improvements to public housing/affordable housing.