The National Atlas for Sustainability and the Durham Pilot

By Jing Zhang

Open window overlooking sunshine and forest. I always thought that one of the few, if any, benefits of having a cubicle with no view of the world outside was that I could pretend that it’s not really as nice as it actually is outside. In this sense, the temperature inside the buildings helps with my illusions of a frigid day.

Little did I know, however, that views of the natural environment or “green space,” which includes trees, shrubs, grass, and other herbaceous plants, have many benefits to human health and well-being. Studies show that people who interact with nature are less stressed, have improved concentration, and even heal faster from illness and injury.

Access to green space is one of the issues that EPA researchers are tackling in the National Atlas for Sustainability.

As I sat in one of the plushy chairs of Durham City Hall listening to EPA researchers Annie Neale and Laura Jackson explain the National Atlas and its urban component, the Urban Atlas, to local government officials and city planners, I found myself interested in finding out how much green space was in my town and how easy would it be to walk there. Are there areas in my community that lacked green space? How hard would it be to create green space in those areas? What other benefits would be gained from the addition of green space?

These are the questions that EPA researchers hope to help communities answer through their tools and models. EPA and the city and county of Durham have partnered in a collaborative Durham Pilot project where researchers are applying the tools developed in order to make sure that they are both beneficial and relevant to community decision-makers and local officials.

The event at Durham City Hall on the National Atlas was just one of the events and tools that EPA is using in Durham. Earlier in the summer, researchers from the Durham area gathered together for an informal “Science Swap n Meet” where they shared their sustainability-related research with Durham staff, academics and non-profit representatives, looking for areas of collaboration and outside input.

The feedback from the community in the Durham Pilot project will enable EPA researchers to improve their tools, models, and methods so that they better meet the needs of communities across the nation.

Lucky for me, even though I can’t interact with nature from the confines of my cubical, I can always take a break and walk around the lake outside the EPA building.

About the author: Jing Zhang is a student services contractor working with the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Project in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.