Building Museum Imagines Green Cities

Posted March 30, 2009 at 4:35pm

Scott Kratz thinks there is a direct correlation between the way that a city is designed and the health of its residents.

“When we talk about overall public health, we talk about the rates of obesity, we talk about rates of Type 2 diabetes, we talk about heart disease and asthma,— he said. “All of those are directly tied to planning. They’re directly tied to the built environment, and people don’t necessarily make that link.—

Kratz is working to make that link at the National Building Museum, where he serves as vice president for education. The museum has launched a lecture series, titled “Sustainable Communities,— to accompany its “Green Community— exhibit. One of those lectures will address Kratz’s concerns about public health.

This week, the museum, located at Fourth and F streets Northwest, will host two lectures in the series. The first, a panel discussion called “Water Knows No Boundaries,— will be held 6:30 p.m. today and will focus on efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells and Catholic University’s Iris Miller will be on the panel. Joe Palca, a science correspondent for National Public Radio, will moderate.

On Thursday, Howard Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will talk about the environment and public health. Frumkin will use Atlanta’s Atlantic Station neighborhood, one of the places highlighted in the exhibit, as an example. The walkable neighborhood is built on the former site of a brownfield, and the CDC has partnered with Emory University to study how residents’ health changes over time.

“This is an issue that is starting to get a little more attention and hopefully will continue to do so,— Kratz said.

The lectures are all tied into the “Green Community— exhibit on the museum’s second floor. The exhibit features cities’ attempts to meet the ideals of a green community as laid out in a wall quote that greets visitors when they enter:

“A green community is one that conserves its land, offers multiple options for transportation, provides open space for recreation and cultivation, and uses its natural and cultural resources wisely.—

The cities represent a wide variety of sizes and regions around the world, in the hope that visitors can find one that they can relate to. One of the more profound stories is of Greensburg, Kan., a tiny town that was wiped out by a tornado in May 2007. In an ironic, defiant choice, Greensburg leaders are rebuilding the community to run on wind power.

The series will continue on a monthly basis until the exhibit comes to a close in October. The lectures cost $12 for museum members and $20 for nonmembers; this week’s lectures are free to students. The museum prefers visitors buy tickets in advance at nbm.org. Audiences of 60 to100 students and professionals attended the first two lectures.

For interested parties who cannot make it to the museum, audio from all of the lectures will be posted online within a couple weeks after the event. The museum is also experimenting with posting video, according to Kratz. The museum posted video from the January lecture of affordable housing developer Jonathan Rose and solicited more questions from the public, which Rose then answered online. Kratz said plans are in place to do the same for Frumkin.

United Technologies Corp. sponsors the lecture series.