Oct 17, 2012
THEME: Wellness

Transparency’s Role in Public Health

Two summers ago, the New York City Health Department began requiring restaurants to publicly post a “grade” —A, B, or C— that reflects the results of their sanitary inspection. The now ubiquitous letter grades, posted in restaurant windows across the city, provide the public with a quick indication of how safe, or unsafe, a restaurant’s practices are. This manner of sharing the Health Department’s rating is both highly transparent and highly relevant to all stakeholders. It instantly influences customer’s decision-making, and therefore has a direct impact on a restaurant’s revenue generation. The goals of this method are two-fold: lower the risk of exposure to unhealthy environments and incentivize restaurants to clean up their act. On another level, the Health Department is also demonstrating that transparency can be used as a tool for positively and directly impacting public health.

A subtle but powerful motivator, transparency requires fully disclosed information at the inception of, and then throughout, the decision-making process. The importance of transparency is incredibly relevant for you and me: customers, business owners, designers, and more.

What does transparency mean to a materials specifier? Once obscure, the landscape of building materials is becoming increasingly transparent. A specifier now has access to resources, including Perkins+Will’s Precautionary list, which inform her of the fact that lead is a known carcinogen or that phthalates, found in many plastic products, are a reproductive toxicant. She is given the opportunity to better understand the health impacts of her choices.

What does transparency mean to a parent? Richard P. Ghiraldi, the father of a third-grader attending Public School 36 in Staten Island, was far beyond concerned when he discovered that the school’s electrical ballasts—the devices that regulate electric current for fluorescent lights—were leaking highly toxic PCBs onto the light fixtures and the classrooms’ floors. As he looked further into the problem, he also became increasingly confused. “Everything is so obscure,” said Mr. Ghiraldi. He discovered that there were almost no resources for helping him understand how the school’s facilities were impacting his son’s health. “I do worry that it may have some impact on him in the future — a cancer, some kind of illness,” he said.

The dialogue on transparency in the built environment is still in its early stages. For many AEC firms, including ours, the first steps toward transparency include disclosing information about the company’s carbon footprint, employment practices, and impact on local communities, often through something like a CSR report. As related industries increasingly support transparent practices in architecture, we hope that other companies will join Perkins+Will in creating even more positive impact both environmentally and socially. Whether you are choosing a restaurant for a dinner in Manhattan or a collection of floor tiles for an academic medical center, transparency can contribute to a healthier future.

– Written by Carolyn Roose

Leave a Comment