Category Archives: Community Development

May 8 2014

Streetcars: Is Desire Enough?


This year, the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, an annual report of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, added some new measures, including transportation, to help track what communities can do to help improve population health. Researchers have found that more than three-quarters of workers drive to work alone and among them 33 percent drive longer than a half hour each way. Driving contributes to physical inactivity, obesity and air pollution.

One idea that has sprouted as an alternative to cars is actually a throwback: Streetcars. First introduced in the 1820s and drawn by horses on rails that let wagons move faster than they could on unpaved roads, many cities later added electricity by the 1920s to create early transit systems. They then added buses—and often faster underground rail lines—to transportation options as the 20th century continued, and then usually discontinuing the streetcar lines.

Planners say resurgence has come with plans to revitalize downtown areas as well as attract tourists, who often fly into town but then look for inexpensive and accessible ways to go from site to site. But funding, including grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation, is sometimes awarded for streetcars on the promise of using the lines as an inexpensive transit mode to get to and from work. An opinion piece in The New York Times last month proposed that idea for people who live in lower-income neighborhoods a mile or more from subway stations, which can be a deterrent to looking for higher-paying jobs outside of home neighborhoods.

But some researchers remain skeptical that streetcars will meet that and other promises made by some developers, including reducing car emissions and the need for parking spaces in cities. A study published last year in the Journal of Public Transportation by Jeffrey Brown, an associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University, said there is “a lack of information about how these investments [in streetcar lines] function as transportation modes as opposed to urban development tools.”

Brown said few streetcar rider surveys have been done, but where they have been ridership so far does not indicate they’re being used as a transportation option for work. A Memphis survey found that only 9 percent of streetcar rides transport workers between home and job, while 58 percent of bus rides are for transportation to work and back. And surveys of the Portland system, the heaviest used streetcar system in the United States, show that streetcar users tend to have higher incomes than users of the city’s other mass transit modes. 

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Oct 16 2013

Place Matters: A Q&A With David J. Erickson, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

file David Erickson, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

At the recent Place Matters: Exploring the Intersections of Health and Economic Justice conference in Washington, D.C., David J. Erickson, PhD, was a key member of a panel called “What Works for America’s Communities?” Dr. Erickson, who is director of the Center for Community Development Investment at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, has been a key leader in a Healthy Communities collaboration between the Federal Reserve and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The joint effort has convened more than ten conferences around the country and released numerous publications, including an article in Health Affairs about partnerships to improve the wellbeing of low-income people.

>>Read more reporting from the Place Matters conference, in a Q&A with David Williams of the Harvard School of Public Health and the RWJF Commission to Build a Healthier America.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Dr. Erickson at the Place Matters meeting.

NewPublicHealth: Are the Healthy Communities conferences continuing?

David Erickson: We still have what we call “consciousness raising” meetings planned in Ohio, Florida, Louisiana and other cities, and these are initial meetings that get together the health and community development world. But then there is another phase, we call it phase two—how do you operationalize this idea? What do we do tomorrow? Who do I call? How do I structure the transaction? Who’s my partner? And that’s harder to answer so we’re trying to figure that out. So we need phase two meetings to get hospitals together with banks to talk about how they might blend some of their community benefit dollars with community reinvestment dollars to help alleviate some of the upstream causes of bad health [like poverty and poor housing].

NPH: What would be examples of such a collaboration?

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Oct 2 2013

Exploring the Intersection of Health, Place and Economic Justice

file Brian Smedley, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies

On Wednesday October 2nd, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies held its third annual National Health Equity Conference, PLACE MATTERS: Exploring the Intersections of Health and Economic Justice. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies was founded in 1970 and is the only research and public policy institute that focuses exclusively on social justice issues of particular concern to African Americans and other communities of color.

The conference focused on the relationship between community development and the creation of healthy spaces and places, and convened key stakeholders, including grassroots leaders, elected officials, researchers, public health practitioners, policymakers, community development practitioners, and community organizers. The conference had several goals, including to:  

  • Illuminate the mechanisms through which neighborhood conditions directly and indirectly shape the health of children, youth, and families, and document differences in neighborhood conditions resulting from residential segregation;
  • Identify common goals and strategies of individuals and organizations working in the community development sector and the health equity sector;
  • Elevate promising strategies to improve and sustain neighborhood conditions for health that draw upon effective approaches employed in the community development and health equity sectors; and
  • Explore means to better communicate these strategies to key audiences, such as community-based development and health equity organizations, public health practitioners, planners, and elected officials.

Leaders at the Joint Center say that by convening national and local leaders, including individuals at the forefront of community development and health equity movements, they hoped to raise awareness regarding community conditions that shape health and develop policy solutions at the intersection of place and health, particularly as it pertains to people of color and health equity.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Brian Smedley, PhD, Vice President and Director of the Joint Center’s Health Policy Institute about the critical issues of community health and its relationship to health equity.

NewPublicHealth: What do we know so far about the impact of place on health, and what do we still need to learn?

Brian Smedley: There’s a large and growing body of research that demonstrates the relationship between the places and spaces where people live, work, study, and play and their health status, and what we’ve been able to determine is that there are many characteristics of neighborhoods, schools and work places that powerfully shape health.  Just as an example, more and more people are paying attention to this concept of food deserts — many communities in the United States that don’t have geographic access to healthy foods.  And not only do people have to travel a long distance to access these foods, but they’re often financially out of reach as well.

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Sep 3 2013

SOCAP Health: Live Tuesday Webinar on Community Development

NewPublicHealth has written extensively about community development—how financial investments can in time make the places we live, learn, work and play healthier. To truly be successful, it’s a course that no one organization or institution or person can take alone. It’s about partnerships. Community developers, public health officials, foundations and bankers must all come together to determine a strategy for investing and reinvesting in communities.

On Tuesday, September 3, from noon to 5:15 p.m. EST, SOCAP Health will bring together in a live webcast an array of experts to explore this new “health impact economy” and discuss real-world examples of successful partnerships that are improving health in low-income neighborhoods. The event is being held by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and additional sponsors include Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Join the live webcast here. You can also follow the event on Twitter with the hashtags #socap #fedhealth and tweet questions during the panels via @SFFedReserve.

Before Tuesday’s online event, take a look back at NewPublicHealth’s coverage of community development. Some of our biggest stories include:

Jun 26 2013

Faces of the International Making Cities Livable Conference

This week’s International Making Cities Livable Conference brings together city officials, practitioners and scholars in architecture, urban design, planning, urban affairs, health, social sciences and the arts from around the world to share experience and ideas. We spoke with some of those diverse attendees to find out: what do they want the public health community to know about working across sectors to make communities healthier and more livable?

Alain Miguelez, City of Ottawa, Program Manager for Zoning, Neighbourhoods and Intensification Alain Miguelez, City of Ottawa, Program Manager for Zoning, Neighbourhoods and Intensification

Alain Miguelez, City of Ottawa, Program Manager for Zoning, Neighbourhoods and Intensification 

NewPublicHealth: What do you want public health to know about making communities more livable?

Miguelez: I want public health to know they’re at the heart of what we do. Usually urban planning is a pretty arcane thing. We’ve done a good job of making it tough for people to understand and relate to. They don’t have the patience. Public health brings it home. As we heard in a session this week, it’s not necessarily people who are disabled—it's the built environment that’s disabling. 

It comes down to how you see yourself functioning in your daily life. We've made it impossible to function any way other than with a car. For some people that’s okay, but for those who’ve had a taste of something different, there’s no going back. As planners people don't trust us anymore. We’ve done a lot of things in the name of progress. We’ve disconnected people from the built environment and forced them into places that make people fat and depressed and disconnected and not well-functioning. People coo about Portland and its trams and light rail and walkability. That’s how cities are supposed to be. Everywhere else has got to come up to that standard.

When you see statistics on obesity or depression, it becomes critical, especially with kids. I have two kids and I see very clearly how the environment we build around us impacts how they grow up. It gives kids the tools to function as independent human beings. The right type of city building and suburban repair [with an eye toward public health] can do that.

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Jun 26 2013

Architecture and Public Health: A NewPublicHealth Q&A with Brooks Rainwater

Brooks Rainwater, AIA’s Director of Public Policy Brooks Rainwater, AIA’s Director of Public Policy

In 2012, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) established the Decade of Design initiative to research and develop architectural design approaches for urban infrastructure and to implement solutions to ensure the effective use of natural, economic and human resources that promote public health.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Brooks Rainwater, the AIA’s director of public policy, about the initiative and the impact it can have on public health.

NewPublicHealth: How did the Decade of Design project come about and what are the goals?

Brooks Rainwater: The Decade of Design global urban solutions challenge is our Clinton Global Initiative commitment to action. CGI convenes global leaders to create and implement innovative solutions to the world's most pressing challenges. We put together a 10-year AIA pledge with a focus on documenting, envisioning and implementing solutions related to the design of the urban built environment in the interest of public health, and effective use of natural economic and human resources. In order to do this, the AIA is working with partner organizations—including the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture and the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism—to leverage design thinking in order to effect meaningful change in urban environment through research, community participation, design frameworks and active implementation of innovative solutions.

We started in 2012 by giving research grants to three architecture programs at Texas A&M University, the University of Arkansas and the University of New Mexico.

At Texas A&M, they focused on evaluating the health benefits of livable communities and creating a toolkit for measuring the health impacts of walkable communities as they’re being developed in Texas.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas have a plan called Fayetteville 2030. The city is slated to double in population in the next two decades, so they have brought together community leaders to develop a long-range plan to focus on local food production, including urban farming to help prepare for the large population growth.

At the University of New Mexico, they're establishing an interdisciplinary public health and architecture curriculum. Over the next three years they want to create joint courses on some of the translation issues that come up between the professions, making sure that architects can speak the public health language and public health professionals can also understand the built environment in a new and different way.

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Jun 25 2013

International Making Cities Livable Conference: UCLA’s Richard Jackson on Shaping Healthy Suburban Communities

"We have medicalized what is in fact an environmental-driven set of diseases," said Richard Jackson, MD, MPH, professor and chair of environmental health science at the UCLA School of Public Health, in a keynote presentation that energized and galvanized discussion among the diverse audience of city planners, architects and public officials at this week’s International Making Cities Livable Conference. This year’s conference focuses on bringing together a vision— across sectors—of how to shape healthy suburban communities.

Jackson, a prominent pediatrician and host of the “Designing Healthy Communities” series that aired on PBS, told an all-too-familiar story of a child who comes into a doctor’s office overweight and with alarming cholesterol and blood pressure results even at a young age. So the doctor prescribes behavior change: No soft drinks in the house. No screens in the bedroom. Exercise, do more, and come back in two months. In two months, what’s changed? Nothing. The food at school is still unhealthy, the neighborhood is still unsafe to play in and the family still uses the car to get absolutely everywhere because there is no other choice. The likely outcome for that child and so many others, said Jackson, is to end up on costly cholesterol medication just two months later when the child’s vital statistics continue to spiral out of control.

"It’s a 20th century idea that our minds are separated from our bodies, and our communities are separated from ourselves,” he Jackson, who reminded the crowd that the most critical health advancements in the last century took place because of changes in infrastructure, not medicine—primarily new sanitary standards to curb out-of-control infectious disease.

Now, said Jackson, “We’ve built America around the car” and we need a whole new set of infrastructure changes to re-build communities that offer better opportunities for health as part of everyday life. “The built environment is social policy in concrete.”

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Jun 24 2013

International Making Cities Livable Conference: A NewPublicHealth Q&A with Conference Co-Founder Suzanne Lennard

Suzanne Lennard, Co-founder of the International Making Cities Livable Conference Suzanne Lennard, Co-founder of the International Making Cities Livable Conference

NewPublicHealth is on the road this week at the AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland and the International Making Cities Livable Conference meeting in Portland, Oregon. Watch out for session coverage, Q&As with presenters and other updates from both conferences this week.

The International Making Cities Livable Council is an interdisciplinary, international network of individuals and cities dedicated to making our cities and communities more livable, with a focus on how the built environment impacts the wellbeing of the people who live in a community. This year’s conference focuses on creating healthy suburbs. And though health is an inextricable component of a livable city or suburb, this concept also includes enabling healthy social interaction; fostering a healthy local economy; creating safe spaces where children can grow up successfully; and more. NewPublicHealth coverage will focus on the critical connection between health and livability.

Prior to the conference, we connected with Suzanne Lennard, co-founder of the International Making Cities Livable Conference, who provided critical context on just what makes a city livable, and some of the contextual history on how our nation’s cities and suburbs strayed from livability—and what we can learn from other counties in getting back to healthy, livable places to live, learn and play.

NewPublicHealth: How did you come to found the International Making Cities Livable Conference?

Suzanne Lennard: My husband, who died several years ago, was a medical sociologist and social psychologist and his field was the study of social interaction in different settings and under different circumstances. When I met him, I was studying for a PhD at UC Berkeley in Human Aspects of Architecture and Urban Design and I was interested in how the built environment enhanced well-being. We started working together and since we were both from Europe—he was Viennese and I was from England—we began to look at how some European cities were enhancing well-being.

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May 13 2013

Faces of Public Health: Taja Sevelle

Taja Sevelle Taja Sevelle in one of her many gardens [Photo courtesy of Urban Farming]

Urban Farming, founded by recording artist Taja Sevelle, is a nonprofit organization with a goal of reducing hunger and increasing access to fresh, healthy foods by encouraging people in urban, rural and suburban areas to plant gardens on unused land. There are now over 66,600 community, residential and partner gardens that are part of the Urban Farming Global Food Chain around the world.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Taja Sevelle about the group and its plans for the future.

NewPublicHealth: How did you become interested in the issue of Urban Farming?

Taja Sevelle: I was recording a CD for Sony Records in Detroit, Mich., when I began to see the vast amounts of unused land in the city. I knew that numerous jobs were being shipped overseas and a lot of people who had lost their jobs were suffering. So, in 2005 I put my music career on the back burner and started Urban Farming with three gardens and a pamphlet. It was always a global vision that grew rapidly and started to get international coverage quickly.

Even though this seems like a new idea, it really is just reacquainting people with the age-old act of planting food. The World War II victory gardens, for example, are a great model because during that time, 20 million Americans planted gardens and grew almost half of the U.S. produce supply. Recently, when the economic downfall hit around the world, planting a garden became a necessity for many people who may not have been thinking about it previously.

NPH: What are the key goals for Urban Farming?

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Dec 10 2012

GOVERNING Summit on Healthy Living: Architecture for Health

file High Line Falcone Flyover, New York, photo by Iwan Baan

This week, GOVERNING magazine will hold its second Summit on Healthy Living, in Atlanta, Ga. The summit will focus attention on healthier living and aims to provide leaders with model policy and outcome-based programs to help make a difference in their own communities.

>>Read more on what works to create healthy communities.

Key goals include:

  • Engaging state and local leadership in building a healthier America across the generations from childhood to old age
  • Providing leaders with tools, information and relationships to build and sustain healthy communities
  • Creating a network of leaders from various communities and sectors to establish a national movement for healthier living

During the meeting, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) will present a new report, Local Leaders, Healthier Communities Through Design, which is an examination of the positive impacts design can have on health. The report looks at eight U.S. communities that are in the midst of design and architectural projects that create open spaces; offer easier access to recreation and transit; and provide ample opportunities for exercise.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Brooks Rainwater, director of public policy at the AIA, about the new report.

Stay tuned for continued NewPublicHealth coverage of the GOVERNING Summit.

NewPublicHealth: Can you tell me about the presentation you will be making at the GOVERNING Summit?

Brooks Rainwater: The presentation at the GOVERNING Summit is going to be focused on the release of our report, Local Leaders, Healthier Communities through Design. This report is part of a series stretching back to 2007 where we focused on livable and sustainable communities. What we’re really trying to do with this report is to tie design and health together, and demonstrate through the positive projects that cities are doing throughout the country exactly how this can be done. Oftentimes when people think of health, the first thing that comes to mind is the medical industry and treating illness when individuals aren’t well. However, architects can help create healthier communities and — through preventative strategies for improving health — these can be designed into our cities, helping people from becoming sick in the first place.

What we really see with this is that by promoting development patterns that are more compact and closer to transit, shopping, restaurants, social services and community amenities, that this is the first part of a comprehensive systems level solution. Active lifestyles rely in large part on expanding the options for when, where and how people can live, work and play. That’s really what we see that design can do—it can offer options for people, whether that’s being able to walk to school or walk to a corner store or have a park nearby. All of these things — sidewalks, active design guidelines — can really set up a situation where design makes a difference in how people live their everyday lives.

NPH: What are some of the cities you will be showcasing at the summit?

Brooks Rainwater: We’re going to be talking about New York City and the citywide conversation happening there about promoting healthier designs with active design guidelines. They’ve been holding city conferences for a number of years now and they’ve also been focused on innovative urban design. The city’s High Line is a very clear example of that. The High Line is a public park built on a 1.45-mile-long elevated rail structure. Previously, the area the High Line was built on was a freight rail track, in operation from 1934 to 1980. What’s interesting about the Highline is that the economic benefits that it brings to the city through redevelopment surrounding it are enormous, and at the same time it’s offering people a way to improve public health.

>>Editor’s Note: The city of Paris has converted a rail line into an elevated park called the Promenade Plantée. Similar projects are in early the stages in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Chicago and Rotterdam.

We’re then looking at Los Angeles and what they’re doing there to advance active mobility and healthier growth through living streets, public transit and healthier community design with innovative policies and initiatives. They’ve been investing in transit programs there and have been really trying to redevelop the core of the city and kind of create those connections between the sprawling city that is Los Angeles. Architects out there have really been pushing active design as something that needs to be integrated into the core of the city.

NPH: What are some of the significant features of the High Line that make it new and significant?

Brooks Rainwater: I think one of the significant features of it is that it created green space in a highly urban area by taking what was an elevated rail bed that was no longer in use, so it was kind of taking space that existed but wasn’t getting used to its best ability and turned it into something that was able to improve public health. In New York there’s not a great deal of park land or trees or ways for urban dwellers to interact with nature, and so I think by creating that space it really offers residents, as well as visitors, a good opportunity to have this new kind of place.

NPH: What is happening in other areas? What factors into the decision of where to create these green spaces? Clearly, people who are higher income and middle-to-higher income also need to exercise and prevent heart disease, but what are the questions that go into who to serve when some of these new projects are created?

Brooks Rainwater: I think that’s one of the things that we wanted to focus on within this report, is to make sure that equity was a large consideration. The way we did that was by also looking at a number of cities. Boston was a clear case study that they’ve designed healthier, high performance, green, affordable housing within the city, and that was a key aspect of their 2007 green building law they passed. And so what they’re trying to do there is focus specifically on lower income individuals and they’re looking at things like indoor air quality — which tends to be terrible — and lower-income, dilapidated housing. They’re also trying to help redevelop the communities surrounding…affordable housing, buildings that are being designed, and so I think we’re seeing some exciting things happen there. With Milwaukee we looked at how they’re revitalizing blighted brownfields for healthier buildings, neighborhood access and paths of recreation with thriving light industry.

So the community that they’ve revitalized there — the brownfield site — was in an area of the city that, as you can imagine, wasn’t one of the better areas, and now they’ve been able to kind of recreate that and you see people biking and walking through there. You have some thriving light industry on the edges of it as well, and it’s kind of providing that access to all members of the community.

The other area that we’ve tried to look in on was equity across age groups. We looked at Portland and what they’re trying to do to create communities for all ages, through policy decisions that promote mobility, accessibility and other options.

NPH: Given the emphasis on livability and green space, do you think community needs are changing architecture?

Brooks Rainwater: I think that the goal of architects has changed somewhat, but I think what’s really happened is we’re seeing a strong focus on development patterns where people are moving back to cities, people are wanting to live in inner-ring suburbs that are walkable, and even farther out suburbs where they’re building town centers in creating spaces for people to walk to things and to have transit options. So, I think it’s a mixture of architects who have always been focused on kind of serving society and designing what works best for the people who will inhabit the buildings and the communities that are designed. But, at the same time I think because you have such a strong groundswell of individuals who want to live in these types of communities that it’s kind of a push/pull situation that’s happening right now and it’s exciting to see. I think we’re moving back toward this idea that people want to really be closer to nature, while at the same time having the walkability and availability of stores and transit…

I really think architecture can make a difference when design professionals serve as these great collaborators. You know, we’re key stakeholders in planning public health and other disciplines, and I think we can all imagine a future where designing for health is just the way design is done, and we’re very focused on that right now. We really see health and design as our core commitments outside of just this report we’re about to release. For example, we’re currently working with the Clinton Global Initiative on design focused on public health. We’re working with architecture programs at universities to fund research and really figure out the best ways going forward to create healthier cities.

Also, we’ve convened a few programs between architects and public health officials to learn from one another and to really figure out the best ways that public health can be brought into architecture, and at the same time public health officials can start to see architecture as a key way to help fix this problem. Richard Jackson, [professor and chair of environmental health sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health], has been a member of our board of directors and has really focused on this issue. We’ve worked with him a number of times over the years. He is a very important proponent of the importance of public health and design.

Our slogan is “ good design makes a difference” and we really think that architects working together with public health officials and others can do a great deal to make America healthier in years to come.