Trees and public health: Q&A with NashvilleHealth’s Mark Yancy

Did you know that the nonprofit NashvilleHealth chairs the Root Nashville campaign’s advisory board? How is public health connected to the environment and trees, anyway? Meet NashvilleHealth’s new CEO Mark Yancy and learn more in this Q&A.
NashvilleHealth Mark Yancy

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself! How long have you been in Nashville, and what’s your background?

A: I moved to Nashville in November 2021 but have been completely settled since January (when my family joined me). Even though I’m new to Nashville, I’ve been a Tennessean all my life. My wife and I were both born and raised in Memphis, so we have deep roots in Tennessee.

From a career standpoint, I started out in corporate healthcare, where I predominantly focused on business planning and funding. After helping to plan and launch a sickle cell center, I transitioned into healthcare operations so that I could run this center. Being a part of the center from its conception to its operation was an invaluable experience for me and really began my journey into hospital administration.

I’ve always loved administrative work, but then I got this incredible opportunity to come to Nashville and lead NashvilleHealth. In addition to my background in healthcare services, I also have a master’s degree in Public Health. This focus on population health and preventative measures has been a consistent thread throughout my career, which I felt to really culminate in NashvilleHealth’s commitment to improve the health and wellbeing of our community. I feel really blessed to be in this job and to come to such a thriving city like Nashville to partner with a range of individuals and organizations who believe that everybody should have an opportunity for better health.

Q: What is NashvilleHealth and its mission?

A: NashvilleHealth was founded in 2016 by a great Nashvillian: former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist. Senator Frist has been a philanthropist and great leader not just for Nashville and Tennessee but for the nation as well. He recognized that while Metro Nashville was regarded as the health services capital of the U.S., our city’s population health and related outcomes were significantly worse than our comparable cities. He saw this paradox of being a major hub for healthcare services and companies yet our citizenry, by most standards, had poor health outcomes and poor wellness. He recognized that if we wanted to continue on this trajectory of growth, we needed to start taking better care of the people who live and work here—who are Nashville—and this was the genesis of NashvilleHealth.

Our mission at NashvilleHealth is broad, and it’s that every Nashvillian can have a better life and better health—that we can improve the health for every single person in our community. In this broadness is a sense of unity, in understanding that the health outcomes in neighborhoods that you don’t live in ultimately impact you and your family.

We should all want to live in a community where everybody has a fair and equitable shot at a healthy life. Working to ensure this opportunity means we want to make sure that our vulnerable populations and those who are most susceptible to chronic illness are cared for, but, more than this, we want everyone’s health to improve. Health equity means that we are working to improve they health and well-being of every single member of our community. That’s the human approach.

But if you look at it from a city standpoint, Nashville continues to attract new businesses – Amazon, Oracle – in addition to business that have been around here for a while – Bridgestone, Nissan. By addressing the population health issues plaguing our city, we are simultaneously developing a healthier workforce. I think you could compare Nashville to a great athlete. Right now, we are consuming a lot of businesses – a lot of calories if you will – because we have such a well-oiled machine in terms of industry and building our economy. However, if we don’t pay attention to the fitness level of the people who make that go, we’re going to become out of shape and not be able to sustain the activities that were started.

At NashvilleHealth, we recognize that we are all one and that what happens to someone across town, someone who might not have a fair shot at being healthy, affects us all. We use terms like “sustainable growth” and “workforce wellness” to show folks why we must move in this direction. Population health is important for you even beyond just the human component of wanting your neighbors to be healthy.

Q: How does environmental health fit into this picture of public health?

A: Environmental health and public health are inextricably linked. In many ways, they are one and the same. But, just like with public health, people who aren’t necessarily within that industry or field might not look to see its impact on our community. We’re trying to fix both of those perceptions.

In terms of health equity, we know that physical activity and nutrition are critically important. Environmental health, specifically in terms of green spaces and park and healthy food access, has a direct impact on these factors which have a downstream affect on health and wellbeing. Areas where people can be active, neighborhoods with access to fresh, nutritional food sources, parks with adequate green spaces and trees—these allow and encourage people to engage in healthy activities.

Environmental health also speaks to things like water quality, and, with climate change, we’re beginning to see some very real impacts in this area now. Extreme weather events, which are directly related to climate change, have tangible human consequences. This inability to move, to transport, to feed people, affects mental and physical health. These things tie directly back into public health as some people have better access to healthcare, support, and safety nets than others.

Lastly, there’s a visibility and sight issue related to environmental health. You can go out and you can see trees and greenery, which relates to your social and emotional health and your ability to think clearly. So, there is also a mental and emotional health component too. We must continue to push to get people to understand that when we’re talking about trees, water, or air quality, these are not things that are just somewhere out there for others to take care of: everybody should be equally invested in that.

Q: What do you perceive as the biggest threats to public health in Nashville?

A: The traditional way to answer this is access. And it’s true. At the end of the day, health equity is about everyone having a fair and just opportunity to be healthy. In some areas, due to transportation reasons or insurance reasons, access is a big deal.

But I also take an alternative approach to this question. I think the biggest health threat to us is public perception. For those of us who don’t struggle with access or who don’t struggle with poverty or income insecurity or food insecurity, it’s challenging to understand that when some people suffer from these inequities, we are all affected. I believe that, in a lot of ways, the ability and the scope to help may come from some people who aren’t in those situations. But, if our belief is that these aren’t our problems, or that someone else will take care of it, it fractures the unity we need to solve that problem.

This also leads to a dynamic in which we don’t recognize that we are all linked together. If COVID didn’t teach us that we’re all linked, I don’t know what will. Infection rates in one area of town quickly turned into infection rates in another part of town. I would hope that people keep that in mind. If we aren’t all working on health equity issues, in public, in private, and individually, having a chronically ill section of town where people are wage-earners and punch a clock that’s going to translate to absenteeism. Those things affect us.

Q: What is NashvilleHealth’s role in the Root Nashville campaign?

A: NashvilleHealth’s is on a mission to ensure that every single Nashvillian has an opportunity to have a long, healthy life. You cannot talk about improving overall population health and leave environmental health out of it. Nashville has undergone a tremendous amount of growth which has led to a lot of the development, but this development comes at the expense of green spaces and trees. Bottom line, we are losing tree canopy. This impacts our access to clean air and also the way our city looks. Going back to the sight – no one wants their city to look like a concrete jungle. Nashville has some amazing environmental advantages: we have wildlife and streams and rivers flowing that a lot of major cities don’t have the luxury of having.

For NashvilleHealth, supporting a campaign that is working to protect and grow our tree canopy is a natural fit for us, allowing us to talk and act on the importance of environmental health. We’ve also talked about how the leaders of the campaign are at the table when we’re talking about public health, so that we can make sure that environmental health is part of the conversation (and vice versa). It makes a lot of sense for us to support the campaign as the advisory board chair. I would encourage people to learn more about the Root Nashville campaign, our goals, and why planting trees is so important. We are always looking for sites to plant some trees and for community leaders to participate in our projects! You may have seen a big green Root Nashville truck driving around with some big trees on the trailer in the back, getting ready to be planted, so take advantage of the mission and the knowledge of environmental health.

Notes from the Root Nashville campaign:

Several important points of public health data helped determine the Root Nashville campaign’s impact areas — areas of focused planting efforts:

  • Respiratory disease hospitalizations by zip code
  • Areas with high densities of vulnerable populations (low-income and children under 5, as the groups most susceptible to heat-related illnesses)

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