The sustainability
of communities
depends on the health
of the region

To make sure that health became part of SCS 2000 priorities, the chair of Cleveland City Council's Public Health Committee, Merle Gordon, was invited to speak on how health is a prerequisite of sustainability. Following are excerpts of her remarks.

By Merle Gordon

Thank you for this opportunity to speak about public health and how it relates to sustainable communities. In my opinion, everything relates back to public health. Since most of the planning around this symposium focused on architecture, urban design, infrastructure, business and economics, priorities have been somewhat established for those topics. I hope that my comments this morning will help us formulate goals and objectives for public health that will be discussed in depth this afternoon.

First of all, when we talk about sustainability we are really talking about survival and empowerment. And when we talk about communities we start with the individual, then the street, the neighborhood, the city, the county, the state, and so on. I happen to be someone who believes the stability, not just the survival, of a community is only so good as the health of the larger region.

Let me explain. I have been a part of and read many studies that look at the health of the neighborhoods in Cleveland. For example, Dr. Al Rimm of Case Western Reserve University Medical School looked at health indicators in Cleveland and compared them to Cuyahoga County and the State of Ohio. These indicators looked at death rates among black and white people, various cancer rates, infant mortality rates, asthma rates, HIV/AIDS, and other measures. As you can probably imagine, the City of Cleveland had the worst numbers.

Or, in another study, the Federation for Community Planning looked at social indicators for numbers of female headed households, births to females between the ages of 10-19, births to unmarried females, persons 25 and older with at least a high school diploma, persons who received cash assistance or other forms of public assistance, child care spaces, and numbers of children who passed the 9th grade proficiency test. Almost every indicator showed that the large urban municipality, Cleveland, is poorer, sicker, less educated, more dependent on public assistance, and more at risk. This is public health.

Welfare as we knew it is over. I commend the county and all the social service organizations for pulling together to try come up with solutions for the thousands of families who can no longer rely on the government to feed, clothe, and house them. This is a mammoth task. This is public health.

Economic development is the key to survival of cities such as ours. Building stadiums and office towers, redeveloping the Euclid Corridor and adding housing downtown is essential to this city's survival as a major city. Most of this cannot be done without public subsidies and financial incentives. However, there are thousands of families and thousands of elderly people living in subsidized or substandard housing. Some of this housing is being torn down to make way for new developments and new market-rate housing, pushing more and more poor people into situations that are unsafe and unsanitary. This is public health.

As Cleveland City Council debates the issue of a living wage, I keep hearing from the business community that there are not enough people in the labor pool to choose from. Cleveland does not have enough trained and educated people to choose from for entry-level jobs, even though the school system is on its way back. School Superintendent Byrd-Bennett talks openly about what is still needed in the system to prepare youngsters for the future. We need to find ways to empower these students so that there is a possibility of a bright future for them and for Cleveland's economy. This is public health.

We also need better systems to teach children the basic health skills they need. If children at age 4 do not understand what it means to wash their hands after they go to the bathroom, how are they going to know what it means to protect themselves from a communicable disease as teenagers or adults? Public health needs to be taught in every grade level whether the message is proper nutrition, don't smoke, the dangers of drugs, sex education, pregnancy prevention, communicable disease prevention, and just overall awareness of good health practices. This is public health.

I could go on talking about the need to preserve green spaces so that nature can work to keep the air cleaner. Or what it means to have clean water. Or what lead in older paint, in the soil and in the pipes is doing to young people's brains. Or what pollution is doing to our younger and older populations.

The point I'm trying to make is that everything relates to public health. Public health and empowerment are vital to all segments of the community. Building sustainable communities needs to be done with the health of the whole population in mind.


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Copyright 2002-2003



Proceedings of Sustainable Communities Symposium 2000
Three days in May 2000
Symposium agenda
The thought and practice of sustainability
Themes of the discussion
Agenda for architecture/urban design
Agenda for business/economics
Agenda for infrastructure
Agenda for political/legal issues
Agenda for health
Forging a regional civic vision
Committed to people and place
Sustainability pledge
Quotes from speakers
Resources for sustainability

Download publication of SCS 2000 proceedings

Back to main sustainability page
Go to SCS 2000 site


Priorities for health

Based on the break-out discussion at SCS 2000, here are some beginning priorities for health:

  • Create a collaboration between existing environmental health organizations.
  • Establish principles for environmental health so decision makers can make better, more informed decisions.
  • Connect public health to the economic bottom line (e.g., to a healthy, productive workforce).
  • Make sure that public health and education are key parts of future discussions about sustainability.


Building sustainable communities needs to be done with the health of the whole population in mind.
Merle Gordon

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