Cool Green: Together, we gather strength

Together, we gather strength.

A partnership of teams brings fantastic news for the livability and health of Birmingham!

By Miriam Calleja


When we think about our health, we often focus on factors such as diet, exercise, sleep, stress reduction, and medication. While these things are undoubtedly important, we often overlook our natural environment’s impact on our well-being. Trees provide critical benefits to human health, including cleaner air, reduced stress, and protection from the sun’s heat. Often, areas that are less dense in trees coincide with areas of race or ethnicity-based discrimination.

In a recent development, three organizations in Birmingham, Alabama, have joined forces in a project that positively impacts public health and the environment. The Jefferson County Department of Health, the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Lister Hill Center for Health Policy, and the program Cool Green Trees, which functions under CAWACO RC&D Council, a non-governmental organization (NGO) and local non-profit, have come together to improve the well-being of Birmingham residents and mitigate the potential damage caused by storms in one fell swoop. This is how it happened.

What can one woman with conviction and a vital purpose do? She can do a lot. But with some help, she can do much more.

Meet Francesca Gross, a natural scientist who has been working in nonprofits for the past 25 years and the Program Manager at Cool Green Trees. For several years, Francesca has had a specific purpose: to bring together urban conservation and the world of human health. This purpose took a significant turn when she met Ariann Nassel, a scientist and geospatial data specialist from the Lister Hill Center for Health Policy at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

Ariann and Francesca, using their particular expertise, could take the project to its next goal post by making a visual science-based narrative using data on the EnviroAtlas boundary for the Birmingham area obtained through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The StoryMap helped them (and us) visualize air quality, flooding issues, and summer urban heat island effects on a map of the Birmingham area.

This academic-nonprofit collaboration also caught everyone’s attention. For the first time, residents, the city council, the neighborhood presidents, and, as it turns out, funders were listening and understanding the impact trees had on their city… and their health.

The first financial aid came in thanks to Francesca and her liaison with Mark Wilson, former Jefferson County Department of Health director. This was precisely what the department wanted: an insight into how natural systems directly affect human health. This funding meant that Cool Green Trees was now not only a dream but a viable program.

Three didn’t make a crowd in this collaboration. This trio could move the project even further. Most recently, Cool Green’s StoryMap was used to get a substantial amount of money from the US Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry grant, which was specifically looking at urban forests. The partners for this grant include Ruffner Mountain Nature Coalition, Jefferson County Department of Health, and the City of Birmingham. The data on human health by the US Forest Service tallied with that of EnviroAtlas obtained through the EPA, so there was a solid launchpad to start with.

On top of that, the health department offered a startup sum and an unprecedented five years of funding. This will ensure that the Cool Green – Lister Hill Center for Health Policy UAB – Jefferson County Department of Health partnership can continue improving community livability and health for Birmingham’s residents for years to come.

As Helen Keller said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

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