2023 Equity Challenge Day 9: Health Equity and the Built Environment

Without a doubt, racism influences the likelihood of exposure to environmental and health risks. Whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in urban [environments], in rural ‘poverty pockets’, or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation.

Dr. Robert Bullard

American Academic, known as the “father of environmental justice”

The environment we live and work in is an important determinant of our health. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food available for us to eat, the safety of our neighborhood — all of these factors impact our health. Built environments are human-made or human-modified spaces and physical structures that we use to live — like the roads we drive and ride our bikes on. Today we will guide you through examples of how built environments affect the health of our communities and how focusing on improvement can bring greater health equity.

Air pollution is an important place to start when looking at the built environment. Air quality is measured by the number of toxic particles (known as particulate matter) in the air, like methane, that pollute the air we breathe. Fumes Across the Fence Line states, “The life-threatening burdens placed on communities of color near oil and gas facilities are the result of systemic oppression perpetuated by the traditional energy industry, which exposes communities to health, economic and social hazards.” In addition, many hazardous waste sites, often ones that produce dangerous chemicals, have historically been placed in urban environments, closest to people who are underrepresented and most vulnerable (BBC News). Both factors have led to poor air quality and Black Americans being exposed to 38% more polluted air than white Americans. This causes a substantial increase in risk of asthma, COPD and lung cancer, as well as a much higher likelihood of asthma attacks in Black children. 

In addition to air pollution, flooding is a major issue in the built environment. Urban environments are at a much higher risk of household flooding due to aging infrastructure like old, rusted pipes, a lack of natural waterflow and other factors. Due to climate change, there is a rise in climate temperature, rain and precipitation rates, as well as sea levels. When you combine these pieces with aging infrastructure and families in financial crises, we see households being devastated by repeated flooding. Repeated flooding puts people living in urban environments at a higher risk of negative health impacts like mental stress or carbon monoxide poisoning.

One of the ways we can create a healthier built environment and improve health equity is through green spaces. Green spaces are natural and built environments, such as forested areas or public parks, that are known to have positive health effects like a reduced risk of heart disease, anxiety and depression. Historically, racist housing policies such as redlining have been linked to hotter neighborhoods with fewer trees and green spaces (NPR). Green spaces such as nature walkways or bikeways promote health and physical activity, like walking and biking, which have lasting effects. Through natural ecosystems, they can improve air quality and regulate temperature.

The built environment around you can impact health in both positive and negative ways. When all people have equitable access to healthy built environments, we will begin to see changes in health outcomes. Equitable access means reducing toxic waste sites, replacing old water pipes and developing more green spaces. See this infographic on the benefits of environmental health.



  • If you are new to your equity journey or need a refresher on some foundational concepts like social identity and privilege, we encourage you to spend today reviewing these topics from last year to better understand the danger of bias and stereotypes. 
      • Fill out this Social Identity Wheel to build awareness on your own social identities.  This will help you understand your own stereotypes and bias. (15 minutes) 
  • If you are further on your equity journey: 
    • Check out Understanding Our Bias and Its Consequences from last year’s challenge. This day builds on stereotypes and explains the system of white supremacy that stereotypes and bias help to maintain. (5 minutes)  



  • Take a few minutes to do this exercise on stereotypes, you’ll need to write on paper or write digitally.  In our introduction we talked about high school stereotypes. When you saw those social categories (popular, smart, a theater kid, jocks, art kids, band kids) what came to mind for each group? Write down what race, gender, attributes and characteristics came to mind for you with each group. Where did those ideas come from? How are they both good and bad? How do these stereotypes create a false reality about a group of people? 
  • Learn about your own bias by taking a Hidden Bias Test developed by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington. Consider the tests on religion, disability, sexuality or skin tone. (15 minutes) 


  • Bias and stereotypes show up at work and in our community. Check out this resource from LinkedIn on Mitigating Bias in the Workplace. After reviewing, consider who else in your workplace should see this story. What can you do together to raise awareness and work to counter bias culture in your workplace? 

Reflect And Share

  1. What is something you are thinking about after reviewing today’s challenge?
  2. What connection do you see between the built environment and health equity? 
  3. How will you apply today’s challenge to your life/workplace/school/community? 
  4. What conditions in your environment stand out to you? Could they be improved? 


Start the conversation. Send the tweet. Share your story. Make the Facebook post. Sharing what you learn and experience with your family, friends, and co-workers is the first step toward allyship.

Join thousands in conversation by using hastag #EquityChallenge or #TakeTheEC23