Visualizing Well-Being: Healthy Environment

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Community Commons

To create conditions for community well-being we must look back – at continuing, historic influences – and forward – to the major forces that shape current and future priorities. The Visualizing Well-Being series explores the state of wellbeing in the United States through a collection of data visualizations. Each week we will explore one vital condition that comprise our framework for community wellbeing, developed in partnership through the Well Being Legacy Initiative. 

A Healthy Environment

A Healthy Environment is about having a clean, healthy environment for all: one that is free from environmental hazards, one that is resilient to future changes and threats, and one that fulfills our needs to connect with nature.

Healthy environments provide clean air, clean water, clean land, and well-functioning ecosystems, vital for the flourishing of life and the economic engines that underpin our communities. A bad environment can lead to acute and chronic health problems ranging from premature death from air pollution, cancer from land and water contamination, developmental disabilities from mercury and lead, and a range of other detrimental outcomes. Where direct health impacts are not a concern, environmental degradation can still threaten the natural systems upon which humans rely. Pesticides can break links in the food chain, polluted runoff can destroy productive estuarine systems, and climate change can cause severe weather events, flooding, and change growing conditions in food producing areas.

Poor and/or dangerous environmental conditions are not distributed evenly. Due to the concentration of industries, weather patterns, past dumping, and upstream pollution, some areas bear disproportionate impacts to environmental hazards. Communities of color and low income communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, termed environmental racism.

Environmental Quality

Large-scale systems in our economy – food, energy, transportation, healthcare, water, and land development – have significant negative environmental impacts, including pollution and climate change. The United States began addressing environmental issues seriously in the 1970s in response to dangerously high levels of smog, rivers so polluted they caught fire, and communities with high rates of cancer linked to dumping of toxic chemicals. Progress has been substantial with improvements nationwide in air quality, significant reductions in pollution from factories, power plants, cars and sewage treatment facilities, removal of lead from gasoline and paint, and improved management and disposal of hazardous chemicals and waste. Despite progress, serious and in many ways more complex challenges remain, including cleanup of contaminated lands, ongoing and emergent threats to air quality, and negative environmental impacts linked to climate change.

Changing Climate

Named the greatest public health challenge of the 21st Century, global climate change promises disruptions to basic systems upon which humans and the natural world rely, and presents significant threats to the health and well-being of communities around the United States and the world. Impacts of climate change vary between communities, with certain places facing more significant problems or challenges, and all communities needing to prepare for change. Rising temperatures and extreme heat events are already affecting communities around the United States, and are expected to intensify throughout the 21st Century. Extreme heat can exacerbate respiratory problems, trigger heat stress conditions and increase mortality rates. It is particularly harmful for older adults, young children, and people with chronic health conditions. Extreme heat is making certain places in the United States unliveable and driving the migration of “climate refugees.” The following visualizations explore extreme heat projections, an indicator of climate change.

Connection to Nature

We are part of the natural world ourselves, and our wellbeing is intimately connected to it. Being in nature or even observing it has significant positive impacts on physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Evidence suggests that when people are connected to nature they are happier, healthier, more focused, more creative; being in nature can relieve stress, improve mental state and increase physical activity levels. Some have argued that humans distancing ourselves from nature has enabled the environmental degradation observed today. The following visualizations explore connection to nature by looking at the USDA Natural Amenities Index.

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