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Sustainability: It’s Your Health

TW: language, family dysfunction

When we first moved to Philadelphia, I committed two terrible sins. Arriving in the South Philly home of my mother-in-law, where residents cut down street trees because they are “messy,” I 1) opened the blinds, and 2) bought plants for the front windows.

Lace-filtered window shelf, orchids, ivy, stephanotis

Later, after the storm of shock and recrimination had simmered down, my mother-in-law explained, “the trouble is that I’m agoraphobic, and you are somewhat claustrophobic.”

Psychiatric diagnoses aside, I literally felt like I was suffocating. It’s not as though we came from the farm–we moved from Brooklyn, not a notable bastion of pastoral living. But in Brooklyn we were a few blocks from Prospect Park and the Greenwood Cemetery, with their acres of mature trees and expansive meadows. The avenues between had their own trees, a community garden or two, and infinite planters. Our top-floor apartment had south-facing windows, cross ventilation, and what technically counts as a harbor view.

In South Philly, the only visible vegetation seemed to be bouquets of artificial flowers in every row house window. Our ‘back yard’ was a ten foot concrete rectangle, with a cinder block wall leading to the alley. Nearly every day I took our nine-month old daughter to the postage-stamp green space of Girard Park, walking round and round like a hamster until she fell asleep. That year I learned that forsythia blooms in early March, possibly saving my sanity.

Years later, I learned from Philadelphia Rain Check that this impenetrable brick-and-concrete system of row homes, in addition to invoking my claustrophobia, poses a serious threat to the Delaware watershed. When it storms, the water has nowhere to seep underground. It overwhelms our 300-year-old sewer system and floods our waterways, setting off a destructive chain of erosion, water contamination, and habitat loss.

No shit, Sherlock. I wasn’t thinking about watersheds at the time; my reaction was purely visceral. Human beings are not separate from our environment. When we are deprived of nature, our bodies and minds respond the way any animal reacts to being caged. We become depressed, dysfunctional, aggressive and violent.

Sustainability in design is a health issue. Physically speaking, toxic off-gassing from chemical furnishings and building materials degrade our immune systems, and poor air quality from smog destroys our lungs.

But the psychological and emotional effects of living in places at war with nature can be even more pervasive. As a healer, I am intimately familiar with “sick building syndrome”–the chronic illnesses, migraines, auto-immune disorders, and persistent pain problems that tend to accompany working in places that lack natural light, clean air circulation, adequate privacy, noise and odor control. I know the neurological and immune system pathways involved in chronic failure to thrive, and the effects of environmental stress on long- and short-term health.

And it astounds me that so many simple, low-cost ways to mitigate these problems aren’t universal. Why flickering fluorescent fixtures aren’t banned; why cross-ventilation, built-in recycling, plentiful natural light, seasoned furniture, natural building materials, and low-maintenance plants as air filters aren’t basic building principles.

Until then, we can inch toward sane building a little at a time. And maybe the generic Philadelphia street conversation will become less common.

(“F*ck you!” “No, f*ck you!” F*ck you!” “No, f*ck you!” “F*ck you!” “No, f*ck you!” #verbatim #Philadelphia)

Philadelphia kitchen remodel: maximum natural light, integrated plants, organic theme in fixtures, tiles