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Protecting the planet, our pocketbooks and our future



5/31/2011 - Protecting the planet, our pocketbooks and our future
by Dale Neal

Dr. Olson Huff, who's made a real difference in the lives of local children as a pediatrician and children's advocate, may have the last word on sustainability. "It's the desire to produce or encourage an environment that allows us to live more comfortably now with an eye to the future that our children can do the same," Huff said simply. 

 Thinking green and healthy for tomorrow, in other words.

Huff will be one of the lead speakers at a new event that brings together developers who've been thinking about green for years as well as doctors who have been worried about our community's health.

"Building Healthy & Sustainable Communities" will be hosted by MAHEC and Warren Wilson College next month, as the two institutions combine a pair of conferences. Warren Wilson's Environmental Leadership Center had hosted the Mountain Green conference for developers in recent years. Last year, MAHEC launched its first Building Healthy Communities. The two groups decided to join forces this year for the event June 2-3 at MAHEC and Warren Wilson.

We've figured out that building homes and schools and offices that don't actively hurt us -- asbestos in the insulation or lead in the paint or plumbing -- is a good idea. We're still exploring how to build in ways that actively encourage health. Getting doctors talking with builders could bring about some new ideas, says Phillip Gibson, director of research and community outreach for Warren Wilson's Environmental Leadership Center.

Gibson said, "Healthy is not just a paint that hasn't got volatile organic compounds" -- that's the nasty stuff that makes many paints toxic.

Mountain Green has moved beyond the debate whether we should be using sustainable building technologies to what's actually being used in new construction around the region.

For instance, the new intermediate schools that Buncombe County is building will take in more than just green construction materials to help children breathe easier inside. To combat the growing problem of childhood obesity, why not build a trail system that lets children from the Biltmore Park neighborhood walk safely to the Estes/Valley Springs/Koontz school campuses?

Green construction meets medicine in Mission Hospital's new Cancer Center taking shape just north of Victoria Road and McDowell Street. The center will be Mission's first LEED-certified building, meeting the standard for healthy, green construction. Fountains and gardens with features to capture and reuse rainwater will put a new face on the cold, sterile hallways and spaces that we have traditionally associated with modern medicine.

For Gibson, sustainability encompasses not only the environment and energy efficiency, the economic factor of saving money, but also the social and spiritual, actually welcoming people inside a building space.

That's the same idea that Huff has, that we have to start building better spaces not just for ourselves. We can protect the planet and our pocketbook while planning for our children's future.

Huff worries that too much of our public policy being set now with the budget debates in Raleigh are focused too much on the short view. The Health and Trust Fund, which has funded teen smoking prevention campaigns and other programs, has been slated for elimination by the General Assembly. Huff worries in particular about potential cuts to early childhood education.

"It's short-sighted to improve the economy by simply cutting the deficit and taking away from the growth of the future, especially from our children. All of these programs have significant opportunities for sustainable building, which will spur our recovery and provide jobs."

The writer Wendell Berry summed up sustainability that way: "Whether we and our politicians know it or not, nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory and a sterner sense of justice than we do."

For more information about the "Building Healthy and Sustainable Communities" conference, click on

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