Biodiversity and Public Health

Biodiversity and Public Health

by Grace Cameron, Research Assistant, Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge, CEOs for Cities //

Why we need biodiversity for more reasons than just beauty

Photo from Instagram https://www.instagram.com/p/BNhBrBWBv9o/As an environmental studies major, I am always looking for ways to connect the social to the scientific. Environmental studies is a broader version of environmental science, because it also includes elements of humanities, law, policies, and social science. In addition to appealing to my inner climate warrior, the study of the environment allows me to make those crafty social-scientific connections.

Take conservation, the ethical use and protection of resources and biodiversity, with roots in biology and ecology. Biodiversity is the diversity of ecosystems, natural communities and habitats, and it is the variety of ways in which living things interact with one another. Biodiversity is unimaginably complicated to protect; you have to worry about habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overhunting, just to name a few threats. (H.I.P.P.O., anyone?) Even one of the five categories listed is enough for a scientist to dedicate her life’s work to, let alone for an average joe to think about. In short, conservation is a smattering of numerous different kinds of science.

Photo from Instagram https://www.instagram.com/p/BNpOaAMjUdj/?tagged=hippoThen take public health, also a science, but definitely a social concern. Conservation is probably not the first connection you would make to public health, but it is, in fact, a vitally important component.

Preservation of biodiversity means the preservation of:

  1. Provisioning services like food, fuel, and medicines
  2. Regulating services like purifying air and water, mitigating floods, and detoxifying soils
  3. Cultural services to meet our aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual needs
  4. Supporting services which make all other ecosystem services like pollination, nutrient cycling, and photosynthesis possible.

In the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge [1], 50 cities and counties all around the United States are working to improve the public health of their targeted area. Areas of improvement include Healthy Behaviors, Community Safety, Built Environment, Social / Economic Factors, and Environmental Exposures.

Photo from Instagram https://www.instagram.com/p/BNPQfzFBJBI/?taken-by=foodroof
Pollinator Garden – St. Louis, MO

Provisioning services affect public health in the areas of nutrition and clinical care. Regulating services affect public health in the areas of air and water quality, and built environment. Cultural services affect mental and social aspects of public health. Supporting services affect public health in the areas of food availability, and ensuring the Earth continues to function in such a way that we can live on it—if you want to consider that a public health issue; I definitely think we should.

The point here is that there are more factors that go into public health than purely human factors. Including parks in urban areas not only increases physical activity, which improves public health, but including plants that attract pollinators can lead to better food production and availability in your area. Planting more trees not only offers more habitat for local critters, but also improves air and soil quality.

 Photo from Instagram https://www.instagram.com/p/BL1dejth5GC/?tagged=urbangreenspace
Crescent Park, New Orleans, LA

Biodiversity in an urban environment can impact public health in more abstract ways, as well. Matt Palmer, senior lecturer in the department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University writes, “Does the satisfaction a visitor gets from a walk in the park increase if there is a greater variety of birdsong? Does a child get more engaged by seeing five kinds of pollinators visit a flower bed than she would if she only saw only three kinds? Would an apartment overlooking a high-diversity forest command a higher rent than an otherwise similar apartment overlooking a low-diversity forest?” With those thoughts in mind, here are some creative ways that preserving biodiversity can impact the five domains of public health covered by the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge:

  1. Healthy Behaviors: Increase in nutrition from increased local food availability when pollinators thrive
  2. Community Safety: Park-like atmospheres result in fewer crimes and overall safer communities
  3. Built Environment: Park-like atmospheres result in better access to physical activity opportunities
  4. Social/Economic Factors: More greenery increases property values
  5. Environmental Exposure: More biodiversity leads to improved air and water quality

I’d like to conclude by reminding you—because my conscience would not allow me otherwise—that we should not be preserving biodiversity solely for human’s benefit. Ethically, we have a responsibility to preserve and protect our environment because we have the power to do so, and the power to harm. But the fact is that preserving biodiversity does reap benefits for human health. So why not give it a try?



About the Author

I am a rising senior at Case Western Reserve University, where I am a proud member of the Student Sustainability Council, and an only-by-chance statistics major with a secondary major in environmental studies. I work at CEOs for Cities on the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge as a research assistant.

My wide-ranging interests have had me writing student legislation on environmental policy at my school into the wee hours of the night, geeking out over a 100-plus page document with different city statistical measurements, and counting every metric ton of carbon dioxide my school emitted in 2015. I am passionate about public health equity, renewable energy, urban green space, and figuring out how to make tofu taste less terrible.

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