By Rachel Powers, Executive Director, Citizens’ Environmental Coalition
Houstonians today are becoming more and more motivated to lead healthier lives. That’s why they’re seeking ways to improve the environment of our rapidly growing city, as well as the health of their kids. Among their top concerns are
- more outdoor time for their children
- more parks and greenspace
- the quality of our air
Here are some tips on how your family can get involved in addressing these crucial issues.
NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER
Kids of yore played pickup games of baseball, touch football, and kick the can. They even made mud pies and camped out in the backyard occasionally. Kids today, however, are more likely to be camped out in their bedrooms texting their friends, watching TV, or playing video games. As a result, many experts lament that kids just don’t get outside enough. There’s a term for this, created by author Richard Louv: “nature-deficit disorder.”
As defined in Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, nature-deficit disorder, according to Wikipedia, refers to a lifestyle in which people, “especially children, are spending less time outdoors.” And this way of life has resulted in “a wide range of behavioral problems.” While not a medical diagnosis, says Louv, nature-deficit disorder is meant “to serve as a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world.” Among the causes of this phenomenon, he says, are parents’ fear of crime, tightly controlled access to natural areas, and kids’ addiction to electronic media.
Another factor may be a family’s tight schedule. Jimmy Castillo, a local artist and a grad student at the University of Houston, who has a boy and a girl, says, “We depend on school recess time for our kids to get outside, because we are often so busy.”
It may indeed take some creative planning for parents to help their kids experience more of the natural world.
What you can do:
To learn about fun opportunities in the great outdoors for yourself and your kids, check out the website of Get Out Here Houston Gulf Coast (getoutherehouston.org). A collaborative effort of Houston nonprofit and for-profit groups, the site offers regular suggestions for enjoyable outdoor activities in our region. Among some of the recent ones: visit the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center, located on the south side of Memorial Park, and hike some of the park’s numerous winding trails, or tour Armand Bayou Nature Center, located in Pasadena near NASA.
PARKS AND GREENSPACE
And speaking of parks, while Houston has made a concerted effort to expand and improve its parklands, some parts of town face a woeful lack of greenspace. To address this deficit, Houston’s SPARK School Park Program has developed more than 200 parks on public school grounds over the last 30 years. And recently, SPARK received a grant from Houston Endowment and the Kinder Foundation to build even more SPARK Parks in the future, after the Trust for Public Land identified a number of “park deserts” throughout the Houston region.
Other, much larger parks have opened in various parts of town as well. January saw the reopening of historic Emancipation Park, located in the Third Ward on Dowling at Elgin. Redeveloped by the City of Houston, this unique space, created in 1872, will celebrate its official reopening on Juneteenth (June 18). In February, a greatly expanded Levy Park, located near Richmond Avenue and Kirby Drive, welcomed Houston residents to its much-anticipated reopening. This acclaimed new space was created by the Upper Kirby Redevelopment Authority. And new hiking and biking trails are in the process of being built along many of Houston’s 250 miles of bayous. These projects are being developed by the Bayou Greenways Initiative of the Houston Parks Board, which has been acquiring properties in multiple locations, from Spring Creek all the way south to Clear Creek.
What you can do:
- Make a donation to SPARK (at sparkpark.org) or the Trust for Public Land (at tpl.org).
- Join the reopening celebration at Emancipation Park on Juneteenth (for info call 713-284-1911).
- Sample Levy Park’s daily activities and special events, or make a donation (for info call 713-522-PARK or go to levyparkhouston.org).
- Donate to Bayou Greenways 2020 (at houstonparks.org/bayou-greenways-2020).
THE QUALITY OF OUR AIR
If you are going outside, you might be concerned about the air you breathe. The American Lung Association consistently give the Houston region low grades for air quality in its annual State of the Air report (stateoftheair.org): nationally, it is on #15 of the list of cities with the most polluted air in 2016 (the 2017 will be released after the publication of this article). The report examines particle pollution and ozone to create the rankings; in Houston, ozone is probably the greater regional concern. The good news is that improvements are being made. ALA writes, “Continued progress to cleaner air remains crucial to reduce the risk of premature death, asthma attacks and lung cancer. However, a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health” (http://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/key-findings/).
Locally, Air Alliance Houston is at the forefront of addressing air pollution. “Children are particularly susceptible to the health effects of ozone pollution,” which, they tell us, “can cause can coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, watery eyes, and scratchy throats. It can impair lung development in children, trigger asthma attacks, and intensify allergic reactions. Ozone pollution can even lead to cardiac arrest and premature death.”
What you can do:
- Air Alliance Houston offers fun, free, and informative presentations for schools. You can book an “Ozone Theater” presentation for your child’s school at http://airalliancehouston.org/why-ozone-theater/.
- To check real-time ozone levels where you live, you can view Air Alliance Houston’s ozone map: http://houstoncleanairnetwork.com/. The map will let you know how hazardous the ozone levels are and how concerned you should be about going outside.
- Look for the American Lung Association’s 2017 State of the Air Report, which will be released in April 2017 at stateoftheair.org.
As a volunteer or as a family, you can do many things to protect and improve our environment. You can find environmental volunteer opportunities near you at volunteerhouston.org and at volunteermatch.org. Learn more about actions you can take as an individual or family from the EPA (https://www.epa.gov/environmental-topics/greener-living) or on earth911.org (including how you can recycle just about anything).
These and many more initiatives to improve the greenspace, wildlife habitat, air, and water of Houston are supported by the 140-plus members of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, a 45-year-old organization located in Houston’s historic Sixth Ward. To become a CEC volunteer, contact Rachel Powers, executive director, at 713-524-4232 or Rachel@cechouston.org, or visit www.cechouston.org.