Nurturing community connections between nature and health

Public health and thriving urban green spaces go hand-in-branch, a panel of experts told a group of Yale alumni gathered at the Yale School of Public Health.

That connection, while not always uppermost in people’s minds, was emphatically underscored at a Nov. 19 panel discussion organized by the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA). The session was part of AYA’s annual assembly.

“We know there are many people looking at that relationship between nature and health,” said Colleen Murphy-Dunning, director of the Urban Resources Initiative (URI), a not-for-profit partnership affiliated with the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. It’s part of what Murphy-Dunning and her colleagues think of as “clinical forestry work,” she explained.

See more stories from AYA Assembly LXXV

Since 1995, URI has worked with 270 community groups in 17 New Haven neighborhoods, providing them with the resources to reclaim open spaces. That effort includes planting 75-225 trees each year and working with more than 1,000 city residents annually.

Christopher Ozyck, URI’s associate director, explained that the program works with neighborhood groups to envision what goals they’d like to achieve in addition to planting trees, shrubs, and flowers. In many cases, the goals include issues relating to public health: reducing crime, establishing safe places to exercise, bringing communities together, and improving the environment.

Two of the panelists, Evelyn Rodriguez and Betty Thompson, talked about their experiences working with URI in their own neighborhoods.

“Green spaces are fun spaces,” said Rodriguez, who is now a URI board member. She talked about her group’s work on a vacant space on Arch Street that had been infested with mice and filled with trash, car tires, and abandoned furniture. Now it is joyful space filled with trees and blooming beauty, she said.

Thompson spoke of her group’s work in the Cedar Hill neighborhood — which has included everything from planting trees to beautifying a road median strip with flowers. Thanks to the work there are now neighborhood places for ice cream socials, Easter egg hunts, and community cookouts.

“It has strengthened us,” Thompson said.

On a more personal level, Thompson and Ozyck talked about how urban green spaces have bolstered them as they’ve dealt with serious health issues. Thompson, for example, is a cancer survivor and the recipient of a heart transplant.

Ozyck told of being diagnosed with kidney disease and undergoing a kidney transplant. It was a green space participant, he said, who gave him the new kidney.

“My community walked my dog and took care of my kids,” Ozyck said. “I feel blessed and humbled to be able to continue this work.”

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Jim Shelton: james.shelton@yale.edu, 203-361-8332