Dear Dr. Horton, Mr. Obafemi, and School Board,
The Fifth Ward school was borne out of District 65’s and Evanston’s admirable insistence that we must start the process of mending the injustices that the Fifth Ward community has suffered over the decades.
By prioritizing what we typically term “green building” in its design, District 65 has the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure that this school is a testament to community healing and health.
Evanston’s 2022 Process for the Local Assessment of Needs (EPLAN) concluded that Fifth Ward residents have a life expectancy that is 6.5 years less than that of the average Evanston resident (and a whopping 13 years less than the longest living residents).
While this astounding difference is due to many factors, we know that chronic health conditions are not equitably distributed. The new Fifth Ward school building is a chance for District 65 to show its commitments to both the educational and health outcomes of these students and the greater community.
As Ms. Janet Alexander stated in her letter to the RoundTable, “…this can’t be just any school.” If we’re going to bring this community up to a level playing field, the design can’t be anything but one that centers environmental health and wellbeing principles and uses these as an overarching compass.
According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, by the time a student graduates from high school, they’ll have spent 15,600 hours inside a school, an amount of time second only to that spent at home.
Environmental health considerations in schools include exposures to allergens, pollutants, chemicals (such as VOCs), and classroom conditions such as ventilation, lighting, acoustics, and temperature considerations.
Prioritizing indoor air quality has been associated with decreased rates of asthma attacks. Children are particularly sensitive to poor indoor air quality and environmental exposures.
According to the CDC, childhood asthma is a leading cause of student absences leading to almost 14 million missed school days each year.
Unfortunately, emergency room visit rates for asthma among Black children in the 60201 zip code are about four times higher than the overall state rate. Improved air quality decreases asthma attacks, respiratory infections as well as student and teacher performance, including test scores.
Indoor air quality has to do with both ventilation and the pollutants present in the air. Namely: fossil fuels and chemicals.
Any time we burn anything inside a building (for example, gas for space or water heating), nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide are released, worsening air quality. Using electric heat pumps for heating and cooling needs would avoid the indoor burning of fossil fuels and be a step toward healthy air.
Choosing the right interior finishes and fixtures (such as flooring, cabinetry, and furniture) can eliminate formaldehyde and VOCs that contribute to poor air quality and can have a variety of health impacts including respiratory issues, visual disorders, memory impairment and more.
Avoiding these exposures would benefit not just the school community but the local workforce who will have the most intense contact during the building phase.
Prioritizing the use of daylight will achieve energy savings, but there are also studies that show a relationship between daylighting and better test scores and student performance. Skylights and large windows allow daylight into schools, which improves student wellness and academic performance.
Designing a building with sound in mind is another important principle that could improve student achievement. Many studies confirm the importance of low background noise level in maintaining appropriate acoustic conditions for student learning.
Environmental health should be considered both inside and outside on the school grounds. Considering the use of artificial turf ignores significant health concerns. Even if one were to ignore artificial turf’s short lifespan and associated high long-term costs as well as the ongoing research on the safety of its chemicals for both human health and water safety, there are more points to examine.
- Multiple studies have concluded that artificial turf is associated with a higher rate of sports injuries leading some sports organizations to reconsider its use.
- Satellite studies have revealed that artificial turf acts as a heat island with reported temperatures of up to 160 F, increasing the risk for heat-related illness and injuries. Even the Synthetic Turf Council cautions against its use during the hottest summer temperatures.
- Artificial turf can potentially worsen rather than alleviate urban flooding for residents who are already in a particularly vulnerable area. In fact, a 2021 RoundTable survey showed that Fifth Ward residents were most likely to express concerns about sewer backups and basement flooding. An artificial turf-free school ground that is built with storm water reclamation in mind can benefit not just its students, but the entire community. Native plantings and playground spaces such as those built in partnership with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago serve to retain hundreds of thousands of gallons of water from their surrounding communities. Flooding impacts low income communities disproportionately and severe flooding events will only become more common with climate change.
A school that does not take these concerns into account will only serve to perpetuate the environmental injustices that District 65 is meaning to mend.
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory: “Despite the many examples of zero energy (ZE) schools built at costs comparable to or less than conventional schools, the perception persists that ZE schools cost more. Evaluating this belief is important because the perception of risk alone can drive up the cost.”
Fortunately some of the interventions mentioned here can be accomplished at no or low cost when healthy “green” building design is a guiding principle. The school board and district administrators have been bold in their determination for the Fifth Ward community.
This determination should extend to being creative and persistent in considering both long-term costs as well as exploring available funding to achieve a building that serves to advance health outcomes in the community and make good on its promise of equity.
Respectfully and in partnership,
Marie A. Cabiya, M.D. (Physician Champion for the Great Lakes’ Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit)