An Interview with Natalie Jeremijenko, Director of the Environmental Health Clinic, Associate Professor in the Visual Art Department, NYU and affiliated with the Computer Science Department and Environmental Studies program

Natalie Jeremijenko is a renowned artist, engineer, and inventor who is innovating in unexpected ways. Jeremijenko, like many others, is dissatisfied with current reactions to many of today’s greatest environmental challenges. Instead of following suit, she has used her ingenuity to create a collection of demonstration projects that celebrate nature and allow citizens to experience nature in unexpected ways. These demonstration projects fall under the umbrella of the Environmental Health Clinic where instead of “patients” there are “impatients.” The “impatients” are fed up with the negative treatment of the environment and the impacts that this treatment of the environment has on cross species health.

The Environmental Health Clinic takes a different approach to thinking about environmental

A Collection of Projects from the Environmental Health Clinic.
A Collection of Projects from the Environmental Health Clinic.

health. Jeremijenko explains, “First and foremost, I like to frame urban interventions in terms of shared environmental health. You have a lot of people who are pro or anti development or are from different political groups, but there is no one that is anti-health. Human and environmental health is the best proxy for the common good. I would argue this is a compelling way to redefine global (and overwhelming) issues into local palpable questions like ‘Why is my kid at risk for developing asthma and what can I do about this?’ The determinants of health in something as measurable as life expectancy is better predicted by how close you live to a major arterial road than your genes. The medical model often health fails to acknowledge and address external health determinants. Shared air quality, local biodiversity, and food system are just a few examples of these external conception of health.”

Unlike many health clinics where the “patients” are reliant on an expert to provide remedies, the Environmental Health Clinic relies on its “impatients” to help craft the treatments for their environments. There are an almost endless number of projects in the Environmental Health Clinic that demonstrate how you can find and nuture natural systems in unexpected places. Many of the projects take place in New York City, New York, but there are environmental health clinics popping up around the world. Some of the Environmental Health Clinic’s most biophilic projects include the Moth Cinema, Salamander Highway and Butterfly Bridge.

Imagine going to an outdoor theater where the show features dancing moths. The Environmental Health Clinic is doing just that with the Moth Cinema. Jeremijenko says, “We all know that moths are attracted to light. Instead of destroying them with the light, let’s promote them.”  By creating an environment the supports to pollinators, like moths, we can celebrate these amazing creatures while also developing their habitats. These shows shoots lights over a garden filled with nectar and host plants,  and billboards or blank walls to project the shadows of moths and other nocturnal insects and they bounce around and upon this habitat. The result is a show that helps attendees connect with these amazing insects.

As with moths and the overabundant use of light, there are casualties every day from human interaction with nature. Amphibians are no exception to negative effects of automobiles and the built environment. The Environmental Health Clinic created the Salamander Superhighway in Socrates Social Park to assist salamanders in successfully crossing roads. By thinking through the conditions they need, the Environmental Health Clinic was able to create a welcoming underpass for these important creatures. There is a large black arrow pointing at the underpass that may appear to be there for aesthetic purposes, but the arrow is warmer than the surrounded white surface, which helps direct the salamanders. Moreover, there are tiny holes that provide dappled light in the underpass, which create an environment similar to what the salamanders are comfortable traversing in normally.  There are additional benefits of bringing awareness to the people that they are co-habitating this space with nonhumans through provocative signage. The Salamander Superhighway is also used to monitor salamander activity.

Our last e-newsletter focused on butterflies and the importance of creating suitable habitats in an increasingly urbanized world. The Environmental Health Clinic created a project called the Butterfly Bridge to think creatively about butterfly habitats. Jeremijenko explains, “The butterfly bridge connects patches of habitat that we know characterize islands of biodiversity of contemporary cities. Being able to systematically address and connect those areas of wildlife habitat gives butterflies a way to safely cross instead of smearing into your windshield, and brings awareness to the fact that species are crossing here.” The Environmental Health Clinic was able to do this by using banner zoning. They began this process by thinking, “Where are these patches of viable habitat? How do we stitch them together?” Butterfly bridges are incredibly inexpensive and could be placed almost anywhere.

When asked about how cities can be engaged in this type of work, Jeremijenko responds, “Wondrous engagement, humor, and play are ways to engage people in a direct pragmatic way–seriously. Municipalities can see people enjoying a moth cinema, but for local government to incorporate innovative and novel strategies to revise, for instance, public lighting that incorporates plantings, ala MOTHxCINEMA requires more. People who experience xCLINIC projects develop appetite and vocabulary to expect and even demand the systematic support of urban biodiversity. To really engage cities (rather than people) is to make them directly accountable to human and environmental health. Political pressure is created by exposing people to convivial, enjoyable spectacles that help us realize and explore our dependency on diverse nonhuman urbanites and demonstrate that we can individually and collectively improve our shared human and environmental health.”

Jeremijenko envisions a world filled with “doctors without disciplinary borders” (a concept developed with UVA Cassandra Fraser—the first Dw/oDB to join xCLINIC) that can test out innovative strategies to promote environmental health across the world. After all, everything that you do to improve your community’s environmental health benefits everyone in that community, including non-human species.

Post written by Carla Jones

About Natalie Jeremijenko:

NatJ

Named one of the most influential women in technology 2011 and one of the inaugural top young innovators by MIT Technology Review Jeremijenko directs the Environmental Health Clinic, and is an Associate Professor in the Visual Art Department, NYU and affiliated with the Computer Science Dept and Environmental Studies program.  Previously she was on the Visual Arts faculty at UCSD, Faculty of Engineering at Yale University, a visiting professor at Royal College of Art in London, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Public Understanding of Science at Michigan State University. Her degrees are in biochemistry, engineering, neuroscience and History and Philosophy of Science.