An interview with Colorado environmental health professionals – part of a NEHA effort to highlight stories of dedicated professionals working to keep our communities healthy and safe.
As populations grow and the demand for new development rises, it is important for environmental health professionals to be at the table speaking on behalf of healthy neighborhoods and communities. NEHA interviewed two of its members who work with the Tri-County Health Department (TCHD) in Colorado, to learn about challenges and opportunities related to rapid population growth and land development in the Denver metro area.
Sheila Lynch is the Land Use, Built Environment, and Health Manager for TCHD. Lynch leads the department’s efforts to promote healthy, equitable policy change in local communities.
Kathy Boyer is an Environmental Health Specialist III at TCHD, and works with the Land Use, Consumer Protection, and Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention programs.
NEHA: What brought you to the environmental health profession?
Lynch: When I was young, I wanted to be an architect. As I moved though my studies, I was drawn to philosophy and the sociology. As a result, I became less interested in designing buildings and more interested in how communities develop. I pursued several different avenues in community development, and finally found my niche with environmental health and built environments. As an environmental health professional, I find a wonderful balance between applied science and experiential opportunities.
Boyer: In college I majored in environmental health because I liked the mix of public health and science. That led to an internship, which led to my first environmental health job. I like the variety of work tasks and work environments possible in this field.
NEHA: Can you discuss some of the key challenges in determining and enforcing healthy land development procedures in a state like Colorado, where the population has been growing rapidly in recent years?
The tremendous population growth and resulting development boom in the Denver metro area brings both challenges and opportunities. One of the biggest challenges is keeping up with the current pace of development in the region. Environmental health professionals at TCHD are working closely with local land use authorities (towns, cities, and counties), however, the volume of development can make it difficult to properly evaluate all the potential strategies for mitigating environmental health impacts.
In Colorado, new development is popping up in areas where the region would not have anticipated decades ago. This is not to say that development should not happen in these areas. In fact, it makes good sense to repurpose these sites, it just takes greater coordination among all review agencies to ensure that all potential impacts are addressed. The need for environmental health professionals to engage in the development process is more important than ever.
The excitement and growing pains of a thriving metro area is on everyone’s radar. This attention has brought the opportunity to address environmental health concerns that may not have seemed as pressing in the past. For example, the availability and quality of water in Colorado has gained the interest of Colorado citizens due to the increased demand for water and the state's unprecedented growth. The re-energized conversations about water have helped to bolster efforts among environmental health professionals as we address how to shape future development patterns and also protect this scarce resource.
NEHA: How do you think that the work of environmental health professionals at Tri-County Health Department could be an example for health departments in other areas with booming growth? What are some of the crucial lessons learned?
The Denver metro area is comprised of nine counties, and more than 49 cities and communities. While TCHD does not include the City and County of Denver, we do have jurisdiction over three counties and a total of 26 cities and communities, most of which are in the Denver metro area. Growth in one area will often affect neighboring jurisdictions, so communication, cooperation, and developing relationships with other departments across the region is necessary to facilitate smart growth.
TCHD’s team approach and partner mindset, is a great model for bringing a comprehensive voice to development discussions. We leverage a variety of skill sets and knowledge, including contributions from our land use and built environment specialists, consumer protection specialists, water and wastewater specialists, solid and hazardous waste specialists, as well as other public health disciplines such as smoking cessation, disease prevention, and nutrition. This multidisciplinary collaboration brings a more complete view of healthy communities to our work. We see the land development process as a way to implement a 'health in all policies' approach. This simply means we consider the potential public health impacts of development even when we do not have regulations to back us up. Our role is to be a strong voice and address the short-term and long-term potential health outcomes of land use and built environment decisions.
One of the crucial lessons we learned is that our challenges to bringing a 'health in all policies' approach to land use and built environment discussions is not unique, and that the power of regional collaboration is critical for moving the needle on these topics. We work closely with other land use and built environment professionals in our region. We are one of eight local health departments who are a part of the Regional Land Use Group, a land use and planning professionals collaborative of health departments along Colorado’s Front Range corridor. This group has been extremely important for relationship building and information sharing.
NEHA: The title of your AEC abstract submission includes the word “advocate.” In what ways are you working to show that environmental health professionals are community advocates and not hindrances to development?
Tri-County’s Land Use and Built Environment program strives to be a partner in building healthy communities. Our intention is to be a facilitator of environmentally-sound and health-promoting development. This facilitation role starts with understanding the overall goals and vision of the community, and being mindful of the goals and objectives of the development partners. Simultaneously, we must pursue the health department’s concern that environmental health issues are addressed. In this role, we often advocate for greater consideration of public and environmental health.
The perception of being a hindrance often comes when parties feel that the development is being slowed down. To avoid being perceived as a hindrance, we aim to bring information early to the development process. This includes conversations with the developer and the city or county planner, attending community meetings, and checking in with other agencies who may have similar recommendations for the proposed development so that we find solutions early.
NEHA: You mentioned you have a background in community organizing in your biography. How has this shaped or influenced your career?
Lynch: One of the key lessons I learned as a community organizer is that engaged neighborhood residents are the most tuned in to what their community needs to thrive. This lesson is central to my career and my interest in supporting communities as they build places where all residents can live a healthy life. As a professional in the public sector, I try to stay informed and engaged in community processes so I can understand the needs and desires of residents and do my best to support their vision.
Sheila Lynch and Kathy Boyer will be sharing more about their work at the 2018 Annual Educational Conference (AEC) & HUD Healthy Homes Conference, June 25-28, in Anaheim, CA.
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This project was facilitiated by NEHA staff members Jonna Ashley (Membership Manager) and Nancy Finney, MPA (Technical Editor).