On October 21, Diana Hernandez, an assistant professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, spoke to students and members of the public about the built environment and its intersections with poverty, equity, health, and energy security. The talk was hosted by Columbia University’s Tricentennial Project — a student group seeking to reshape the current approach to the climate crisis into one that is more interdisciplinary, intersectional and intergenerational — and in collaboration with the Earth Institute.
During the discussion, Hernandez emphasized the importance of a diverse range of considerations, particularly related to energy, in issues of housing and the environment.
Hernandez explained that the environments we inhabit inform and shape how we perceive our status and significance in society. While interacting with and enjoying green spaces serves as an affirmative boost, a lack of investment in environments, as is often the case for communities of color and low-income communities, sends certain signals about the communities’ importance in society. Thus, being able to analyze different components of a space and how they might influence certain perceptions is a deeply important tool for those seeking to make meaningful change.
The same multi-dimensional and interrelated approach applies to housing and the built environment. Hernandez provided an example of a woman in Detroit, who was forced to move out of her home, even though it was already paid for, because she couldn’t afford to heat it. Obsolete energy systems and design flaws in the building combined with the family’s financial situation made the space uninhabitable, as winters were far too cold. The example demonstrates that the concept of affordability or affordable housing cannot be solely confined to rent or mortgage; it relates to questions of energy and climate as well. To view the situation from a purely economic standpoint misses several important considerations for what makes a space livable.
Hernandez also spoke of New York City’s coronavirus heat wave plan. As temperatures continue to rise, signaled by the record heat this past summer, communities and households without access to air conditioning suffer the most and are the most susceptible to heat stroke. The situation became particularly concerning as the city issued stay at home and social distancing orders; people could not leave to find cooler areas. So, the city began an initiative to install AC units in low-income and senior households, those most vulnerable to the heat’s effects. While this initiative signals an important step forward in recognizing the disparities in access and resulting harm, Hernandez pushed us to consider how successful or unsuccessful the city would be in also mitigating the subsequent costs associated with running the AC, yet another significant burden on the relevant communities, and one that still prevents the issue of equal access from being fully resolved. Solutions must include members from all relevant communities, so that all necessary considerations can occur.
Hernandez highlighted for us the importance of knowing how different structures and factors all relate to and rely on each other when thinking about housing, the environment and energy. Without taking into account the necessary connections and viewpoints, changes to address the current and fast-approaching crises will be significantly limited. So, as students, we heed Hernandez’s encouragement to reflect on the work that we do and importantly, the status quo of the institutions we are a part of. What exactly is it that we are rewarded for? What does our educational institution emphasize? More importantly, what does our education ignore? As we hope to be the driving force of the necessary change, we will continue to search for and highlight the important intersections to ensure that relevant voices are no longer neglected.
As shown by the intricate ties between energy, housing and the environment, as well as initiatives with good intentions but narrow scope, there is plenty of work to be done.
Evan Lim is an undergraduate student studying English literature with a concentration in sustainable development, and a member of the Tricentennial Project.