Thriving Environment, Thriving Community

Fresh air, clean water and open spaces are fundamental pillars of a healthy community.
NANCY LEMOND, CHIEF ADVOCACY & ENGAGEMENT OFFICER, AARP | May 19, 2017

Editor’s Note: Despite an improvement in air quality in recent years, the American Lung Association’s 17th annual “State of the Air” report found 166 million Americans still live in areas that have unhealthy levels of ozone and particle pollution. Continued exposure to pollutants could lead to a rise in lung cancer, asthma attacks and other ailments. The nation’s water quality isn’t fairing much better. The Environmental Protection Agency deemed 55 percent of our waterways as being in poor condition, meaning they can’t support healthy aquatic life. And only nine states have safe levels of lead in their water supply. To reverse these trends, mayors are taking swift action to improve the health of their communities.

Fresh air, clean water and open spaces are fundamental pillars of a healthy community. Today, protecting natural resources doesn’t mean other priorities need to take a back seat. Oftentimes, investing in the environment also improves public health, boosts the local economy and improves the community for generations to come. Three ways mayors across the country are creating more environmentally conscious communities are:

1. Expanding and preserving green spaces. Creating and preserving open areas serves a dual purpose. When residents have access to parks and green spaces, they are more likely to spend more time outside and stay physically fit. At the same time, preserving these spaces saves habitats from destruction, allowing wildlife to thrive even in urban areas.

In an effort to make Yonkers, New York, more sustainable, Mayor Mike Spano led a project to uncover part of the Saw Mill River that was buried in the 1920s. The rebuilt riverbed – now featuring native plants, new parks and pedestrian plazas – is attracting new aquatic life and improving the city’s water quality.

2. Implementing energy efficiency initiatives. Reducing energy use through installing energy-efficient lighting; increasing the use of natural gas-powered cars; and upgrading water, heating and cooling in public buildings minimizes pollution from fossil fuels while curbing long-term public spending.

Former Mayor Raul G. Salinas of Laredo, Texas, replaced street lights in the city’s downtown area with more efficient LEDs, a move that improved safety and uses 125 fewer watts of energy per bulb. San Diego Mayor Kevin L. Faulconer plans to supply the city’s electricity from all renewable sources by 2035, in part by placing solar panels on publicly owned sites. Twenty-five locations are underway, and 40 more are planned for the second phase of the project.

3. Focusing on green jobs. By making a mindful effort to create green jobs, elected leaders put people to work in their communities and spur innovation.

Mayor Jon Mitchell of New Bedford, Massachusetts, wants his city to become a national leader in renewables and green jobs. Already, the city boasts the most installed solar panels per capita in the United States. He has also hired an energy officer for the city to provide in-house technical and policy expertise.

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Listen to Nancy's conversation with Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges on the role of encouraging recycling and other behavioral changes in creating sustainable communities.

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Read more on how other mayors are protecting natural resources to make their communities greater places to live for residents.