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This story has been updated.

The University of Louisville announced $5 million in grants Thursday to help fund an environmental research project that will provide insight into whether increasing the amount of greenery in urban neighborhoods can improve human health.

The money includes a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for the Green Heart Louisville study. The Nature Conservancy is giving another $2 million toward the project.

The Nature Conservancy’s grant will support some initial air quality monitoring and be an initial investment in the “neighborhood greening,” according to UofL. Thousands of trees will be planted, along with shrubbery and grasses, in south Louisville.

But school officials and supporters hope the work will have an impact far beyond Kentucky.

“How the environment impacts our health continues to be an area ripe for study, with very practical recommendations for improvement coming forward,” UofL President Neeli Bendapudi said in a university release. “The public/private collaboration that UofL is fostering with The Nature Conservancy and others reflects the importance of the work being conducted by Dr. (Aruni) Bhatnagar and his team. It truly has the potential to change things globally.”

Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar | Courtesy of UofL

Bhatnagar, director of UofL’s Envirome Institute, is leading the study. The research team will be looking at things like air quality, landscape design, human health and the qualities of a friendly, healthy neighborhood.

“People appreciate trees and they’re good and they’re aesthetically pleasing, but whether they actually have specific quantifiable health-promoting effects by removing pollutants from air has never been rigorously tested,” Bhatnagar said in a news release. “Through the Green Heart project, we are changing that.”

The project will be centered in the Wyandotte-Beechmont area, between Churchill Downs and the airport.

The research team hopes to recruit 700 residents to take part in the study, which will include the examination of blood, urine and hair samples to assess cardiovascular health.

“We believe that the greening of the neighborhoods will positively impact not only the air quality but also the health of the people who live in those areas,” Bhatnagar said in a release. “If we are correct, we may be able to create new strategies for the prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

Initial plans call for eight of 16 neighborhood clusters to receive the greenery, creating a buffer for air pollution but also for potentially harmful noise in the area, Bhatnagar noted at a news conference.

David Phemister of The Nature Conservancy | Photo by Darla Carter

David Phemister, the conservancy’s Kentucky state director, said the project is worthy of support because it has the potential for “transformative change.”

“If we can demonstrate that by investing in nature we can actually improve and save lives, we open the door to all sorts of new investments, new partners, new policies and new projects that elevate nature as an essential strategy for improving the resilience and health of our cities, communities and citizens,” he said at the news conference.

The project is a flagship study of the Center for Healthy Air, Water & Soil, which is based at the Envirome Institute.

“This grant is a serious demonstration of leadership and the understanding that Louisville — our ‘Urban Laboratory’ — is ready to make decisions through the lens of health,” Christina Lee Brown of the Owsley Brown II Family Foundation said in a release. The foundation provided $5 million to the institute earlier this year.

UofL is collaborating with several partners on Green Heart, including Washington University in St. Louis, Cornell University, The Nature Conservancy, Hyphae Design Laboratory and the U.S. Forest Service.

“This is truly an extraordinary thing for our city,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said, speaking about the project and various benefits that could flow from this and other research by the Envirome Institute. “… This is just the beginning.”

 

 

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Darla Carter
Darla Carter is a hometown girl who recently joined the staff of Insider Louisville to mostly cover health. She previously served as a longtime health and fitness writer for The Courier-Journal, where she also worked for the Metro, Neighborhoods and Features departments. Prior to that, the award-winning journalist wrote for newspapers elsewhere in Kentucky and Tennessee, covering a range of topics, from education to courts. She's a graduate of Western Kentucky University, where she studied journalism and philosophy, and is the proud mom of two young children.