The health care field is confronted daily with the ill effects of the chemical residues in our food, water, and indoor environments and the cumulative impacts of sedentary lifestyles amidst an overly rich food supply.  Adding to this burden, the threat of climate change promises to bring significant challenges to public health from natural disasters, environmental refugees, and new patterns of disease outbreaks.  Many people recognize that a redesign of our approach to promoting health is needed and new partnerships are forming between health care practitioners and leaders in various facets of the sustainable community movement to design health into the fabric of our community infrastructure and systems.

Sustainable Tompkins organized the first regional conference in the Finger Lakes to provide local health care providers and educators the opportunity to learn in detail about ways to green health care facilities (environmentally preferable purchasing, hazardous waste reduction, solid waste management, energy conservation, green buildings), create healthy community infrastructure to support physical activity and better nutrition, and use systems thinking to solve complex public health problems.   The conference on linking health care to sustainable development targeted municipal officials and local health practitioners including public health workers, doctors, nurses, technicians, and hospital and medical office administrators.  

  • To engage regional health care practitioners in a conversation about their role in helping local communities improve their health through adoption of sustainable practices.
  • To help elected officials and planners make the connection between the health of citizens and local development policies and programs.
  • To provide the public an opportunity to learn from practitioners in the field of green design and sustainable living how to make healthier choices that benefit everyone in the long run.
The conference was a one-day event on Saturday, September 15 at the Hill Center at Ithaca College.  The opening plenary from 10:30-12:15 featured keynote speaker Dr. Jonathan Patz of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health giving an overview of the health challenges resulting from climate change, sprawl development, and chemical exposures and sharing ways that the sustainability movement is working to reduce these health threats by redesigning the ways we work and live.  

Afternoon concurrent sessions from 1:30-4:00 covered three themes:  

    Dr. Sandra Steingraber, author of “Living Downstream,” shared her findings on the growing epidemic of environmental diseases, and gave examples of how communities can eliminate toxic exposures.  Michael Ball, AICP, of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and Marie Kulick of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy gave examples of how communities are protecting health by designing for active lifestyles and creating healthy, equitable, and viable local food systems.
    Marie Kulick of the Health Care Without Harm Purchasing Work Group gave an overview of the “Green Guide to Health Care” – a national program of best practices for healthy and sustainable building design, construction, and operations in the healthcare industry.  Dr. Russell Mankes of Albany Medical College focused on environmentally preferable purchasing in a medical setting and reducing medical waste.  Paul Levesque, AIA, LEED AP of HOLT Architects and Stephen Beck, LEED AP of LeChase Construction gave talks on green building and remodeling of medical facilities.
     Dr. Derek Cabrera of Cornell University presented a set of tools for taking a systems approach to complex public health problems. A regional panel of health educators (Shira Adriance of Tompkins County Cooperative Extension, Dr. Geoffrey Moore of Cayuga Medical Center, and Phil Haberstro of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo discussed how systems thinking has helped their programming from the individual to the community level. Audience members participated in a discussion exploring the crucial role of systems thinking in supporting community health.

A working lunch offered 15 different topic tables for attendees to explore issues and share best practices, as well as consultant tables for those ready to get specific advice on how to green their buildings and operations. Throughout the day, exhibitors in a Sustainable Health Fair provided attendees an opportunity to learn about ways to safeguard health through more sustainable living.  Vendors included health care providers, food/nutrition educators, green building advocates, green purchasing organizations, healthy infrastructure groups, fitness and wellness centers, and health advocacy groups.  A healthy dessert contest and door prizes at the closing reception extended the opportunities for networking and interaction with the vendors.

Ithaca College provided primary financial sponsorship as well as in-kind donations of facilities and staff support from Marian Brown. The conference was extremely well received and many of the 145 attendees expressed their gratitude for the event and their appreciation for its well-organized facilitation and high quality presentations.  Many expressed their appreciation of the lunchtime topic tables that helped attendees get acquainted by participating in meaningful conversations related to the themes of the conference.