When the city of Phoenix partnered with Paideia Academies on a green infrastructure project, they anticipated some of the outcomes — like decreased pollutant levels and safer conditions for outdoor play — but the benefits of the project reached far beyond what was anticipated.
Because trees and hedges have been shown to reduce air pollution levels through interception of airborne particles or through uptake of gaseous air pollution, Phoenix city staff, Arizona State University researchers, and school leaders started a green infrastructure project.
As part of Healthy Babies Bright Futures’ Bright Cities Program, they planted “vegetative barriers” at Paideia Academies, a childcare center and K-8 school in South Phoenix.
The Importance of Clean Air
Air pollution is a ubiquitous exposure and a major health risk factor in the United States, responsible for 63% of deaths from environmental causes. And, importantly, many of the same causes of air pollution – burning fossil fuels – are the drivers of our changing climate.
Typical sources of air pollution include climate change-fueled threats like increasingly intense wildfires and vehicular pollution, as well as common indoor items like cleaning supplies, pesticides, household paint. And no matter how the data is parsed – by race, neighborhood, socioeconomic status, product use, and so forth – people and babies of color bear the heaviest burden of exposure and adverse outcomes.
Phoenix Putting Barriers Into Practice
The barriers, which also meet Phoenix’s safety criteria, were planted with the purpose of reducing exposures to traffic-related air pollution and toxics and other ambient hazards (e.g., extreme heat) for the 840 students ages 2-14 that the school serves.
Respiratory illness in children tracks closely with variations in local traffic patterns, which is concerning given that many playgrounds are sited near heavily-trafficked roads.
“School grounds are also spaces where we encourage physical activity,” said Jennifer Vanos, the lead researcher working with Paideia from Arizona State University. “To do so safely, we strive to minimize air pollution and extreme heat exposures, two factors often overlooked in playground safety.”
Measurable Impacts — And More
To measure the impact that the project had, Phoenix installed seven air quality monitors outside the schoolyard to measure long term concentrations of two air pollutants – PM2.5 and NO2 – before and after the new green schoolyard and sanctuary installation. The team hypothesizes that pollutant concentrations will decrease in the schoolyard after hedge and tree planting and maturity as compared to the parking lot and road concentrations – creating safer conditions for outdoor play and learning for the scholars and teachers.
But more than just air quality was improved by reducing these neurotoxic exposures to kids. Because of the healthier outdoor option, student breakfast and lunch was moved from the indoor lunchroom to outside. This change led to immediate changes for students and staff.
Although the noise level was the same, the sound was absorbed by the trees and nature rather than bouncing around the lunchroom and becoming deafening. The light was natural sunlight, and the setting was just more serene. Staff noticed an immediate calming in the students in addition to more socializing, laughing, and animation.
In the short term, these outdoor spaces directly support the health of children with the provision of much-needed outdoor spaces. Long-term, the project aims to reduce health disparities and support the City’s Sustainability goals to promote planting trees at Paideia and in other playspaces to help reach a 25% canopy cover across the city.
Kyra Naumoff Shields is the Bright Cities Program Director at Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF). HBBF is a partner of Climate for Health, a coalition of health leaders committed to caring for our climate to care for our health. Founded by ecoAmerica, Climate for Health offers tools, resources, and communications to demonstrate visible climate leadership, inspiring and empowering health leaders to speak about, act on and advocate for climate solutions. Learn more about our partnership and the resources available to you here.