With all of the lofty associations that the notion of “protecting the Earth” elicits, environmental-related community service is often considered a valuable way to spend your time. From helping clean up a local beach to installing recycling bins in an office, there are a number of ways that an individual can benefit the environment. However, with the rhetoric of the sustainability movement focused primarily on the future for other people, the ability for the sustainability movement and community service to affect an individual’s immediate surroundings is often overlooked. Since people are generally predisposed to consider what is happening “in the moment” as opposed to the distant future, I believe that the impetus for the creation of a sustainable world will be better developed if we focus on the present.
I have been working with high-school students on environmental issues for the past few summers, and I regularly stress the importance of how their environment affects them. Their “environment” isn’t a nebulous concept; I define it as the world and people around them and the natural and engineered structures within. Not only does this definition concern conditions in far-off cities like Seoul or Quebec, but also places closer to their home: their city, their workplace, their school, their neighborhood, and, more immediately, it includes everything on their street.
I tell the students: “All of the people around you affect you in a tangible way.” Of course, then I have to explain to them what “tangible” means, and it makes for an additional learning experience. On the simplest level, I say, “If a person treats you with warmth and kindness, that makes you feel good, in whatever small way.” That same concept relates to the environment. If someone’s surroundings are maintained, free from pollution with a large amount of natural light, it affects them in a positive way. In a strong contrast, if someone’s immediate surroundings lack green space like trees or grass or have a large amount of pollution from soda cans and illegal dumping, then that in turn has a negative effect on how they feel.
Of course, as most of the youth I work with haven’t yet fully grasped the concept of interconnectedness, this talk generally elicits blank stares and yawns. I don’t blame them; the environment’s effect on the people within isn’t what most people want to hear about at 9:00 AM on a Monday morning. But while I don’t blame them, I try to make sure they at least understand.
Published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health is the article “Green Space and Stress: Evidence from Cortisol Measures in Deprived Urban Communities” (2013). Through research done in the United Kingdom, researchers found “a significant and negative relationship between higher green space levels and stress levels.” This finding indicates that “living in areas with a higher percentage of green space is associated with lower stress.” So do yourself and your neighbors a favor and improve the green space around your home. By planting more trees or flowers in your neighborhood, you’re engaging in community service on the individual level and in a way that you can directly see long after the work has been completed.
In addition to lowering stress levels, having more maintained green space is also beneficial to property values. In an article published by researchers Margot Lutenheizer and Noelwah Netusil, it was found that green space (as with golf courses and urban parks) has a “statistically significant [positive] effect on a home’s sale price” (2001). Besides improving property values, green space is also good for health. Recent research shows that the loss of trees “increased mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness”(Donovan and Butry, 2013).
Changing your surroundings isn’t difficult. First, you decide what you have the time and resources to fix. Then, you take action. Can’t do anything about the giant factory ten blocks away that’s spewing chemicals into the air? Well, you can plant a couple of trees to help with some of the pollution and add some more greenery. Can’t stop everyone else from driving their cars for short distances that could be biked or walked? You can set the example yourself. Community service doesn’t have to be a big “to-do.” It doesn’t have to involve a volunteer orientation, a couple Saturday mornings of training, and weekly 30-minute drives to the nearest beach or community health clinic.
By engaging with the environment around you, you are doing a service to not only yourself, but also your greater community. The benefits that are created by environmentally oriented community service don’t only preserve the community for the future, but also make it a happier and healthier place for you in the present. Although stressing the notion of “interconnectedness” generally gets me blank stares from the youth I work with, I still strongly believe that it is true: we are all connected, and we can all help the environment in some way. Whether you are helping to create a community garden or helping to clean up trash on a nearby vacant property, you’re not only working for a better future: you’re helping yourself, and ultimately, helping to create a better present.
Roe, Jenny J.; Thompson, Catharine W.; Aspinall, Peter A.; Brewer, Mark J.; Duff, Elizabeth I.; Miller, David; Mitchell, Richard; Clow, Angela. 2013. “Green Space and Stress: Evidence from Cortisol Measures in Deprived Urban Communities.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 10, no. 9: 4086-4103.
Lutzenhiser, Margot and Noelwah R. Netusil (2001). “The Effect of Open Spaces on a Home’s Sale Price.” Contemporary Economic Policy, 19 (3): 291 – 298.
Donovan GH, Butry DT, Michael YL, Prestemon JP, Liebhold AM, Gatziolis D, Mao MY (2013) The relationship between trees and human health: evidence from the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 44(2): 139-145.