Health

The Simple Idea That Could Make America’s Poorest Neighborhoods Healthier

CREDIT: Courtesy of the New York Restoration Project

In the late 1960s, the South Bronx area of Bronx, New York entered a period of urban decay caused by a combination of white flight, landlord abandonment, and the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, a project that ultimately displaced thousands of residents and local businesses.

Ever since, people in the South Bronx have been plagued by an onslaught of chronic illnesses stemming from environmental changes, dwindling green space, and pollution. Today, hospital admissions for diabetes in the predominately low-income, African American community are double that of the city’s average. The region also has a 50 percent higher childhood asthma rate than other boroughs. Pedestrian injuries have also become commonplace in the industrial enclave.

However, an impending facelift to their surroundings may help improve some residents’ overall quality of life.

This week, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), a nonprofit that transforms open space in communities throughout the Big Apple, announced plans to revitalize the Mott Haven and Port Morris neighborhoods of the South Bronx as part of its “Haven Project.” Changes include visible street crossings, new bike and pedestrian routes, improved access to the waterfront, the planting of 800 trees, and the installment of public art in a network of trails.

Deborah Marton, NYRP’s executive director, told ThinkProgress that these efforts could pave the way for an influx of social and economic activity in one of New York City’s most underserved neighborhoods.

“These residents deserve a network of green spaces that’s just as good as anywhere else in the city. Our goal is to turn this neighborhood into a model of what connected green spaces can do for communities,” Marton said. “Recent studies have tied a disorderly environment to poor brain development in children, diabetes, poor air and tree quality, and a decline in economic vibrancy. If people have green space, they can live a better life,” she added.

Artist renderings of what the finished green space might look like

Artist renderings of what the finished green space might look like

CREDIT: The New York Restoration Project

The current lack of green space prevents residents of all ages from safely enjoying the great outdoors. That can undermine children’s conflict resolution skills, their outlook on learning, and their overall physical and mental wellbeing, as reported by a Stanford University research team earlier this year. Plus, exposure to pollutants from manufacturing centers, transportation corridors, and waste treatment facilities can heighten the risk of developing allergies and chronic illnesses. University of Colorado, Boulder researcher William Nichols designates such areas as vulnerability zones — regions where industrial development has created unsafe living conditions for residents.

Unlike their more well-to-do counterparts, people living in urban squalor most likely don’t have the financial means to circumvent their situation by paying for a gym membership, moving to a better neighborhood, or visiting a community center or swimming pool. That leaves them with no choice but to stay home — inactivity that can be detrimental to their health. Prior research has made this connection, showing that people from households with an income below $15,000 often lead a sedentary lifestyle, which increases their risk of obesity and ultimately diabetes, heart, disease, and other life-threatening ailments.

The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation says that an active lifestyle reduces one’s likelihood of developing coronary heart disease, adult diabetes, and obesity. But raising the health consciousness of people who live in low-income neighborhoods requires local governments and other key players to address persistent socioeconomic disparities that block residents’ access to amenities.

Marton said that NYRP has been able to do that through public-private partnerships with government agencies. The nonprofit launched its latest renovation project in conjunction with Columbia University and the Montefiore Medical Center, two public institutions. It also secured funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation with plans to include insurance company Healthfirst in the second phase. Mott Haven and Port Morris residents weighed in about how the changes would take shape during a series of community planning sessions that have taken place since last fall.

“Many questions have to be answered before we can do the work,” Marton said. “We talked to the Department of Transportation to build consensus and ensure that our resources and goals are aligned. In talking to residents, we saw that everyone wants a better quality environment. We’re in the business of improving communities and making sure that people have access to green space, no matter their income level.”

Parks are worth fighting for: Prior research has shown that green space greatly improves the aesthetics of urban dwellings. Strategically placed plants screen out busy street noises and reduce the glare from headlights. Public meeting areas allow neighbors to socialize more, ultimately curbing crime, increasing residents’ confidence, and creating tighter-knit communities. Additional green spaces also pose great benefits for children because they allow them to think more clearly and cope with stress, as outlined in a study published in Environment and Behavior.

Developers have caught on to this idea in recent years — collaborating with local lawmakers to transform some of America’s urban centers into vibrant economic and cultural hubs via transit-oriented development (TOD), defined as the creation of compact, walkable communities centered around high-quality transportation systems. While the approach varies across cities, TOD typically integrates green space into heavy populated parts of the city, encourages more physical activity, and helps slow down climate change. Such improvements attracted an influx of educated millennials to Washington, D.C. in the post-recession era, paving the way for an urban renaissance in once-neglected neighborhoods.

Similar changes could happen in the South Bronx through the Haven Project. However, that carries the risk that low-income residents won’t be able to enjoy the new amenities for very long because of gentrification — caused when improvements to and rising property values of once squalid areas push out long-time residents who can no longer afford to live there. Similar situations have unfolded throughout New York City in the last 25 years in low-income, ethnic neighborhoods like Harlem, Bushwick, and Crown Heights. The trend has also affected parts of South Bronx, including Port Morris.

But Marton said she’s not too worried about that outcome, stressing that it’s not in NYRP’s best interests to change the demographics of neighborhoods. Instead, her organization wants to improve the surroundings for residents who have long believed that they’re neglected by design rather than accident.

“How a person feels about who they are in a culture as to do with their environment. If you’re growing up and it seems like no one in the big city cares about you, you’re getting a message that you don’t count,” Marton said. “But if you grow up in a neighborhood where the city shows you that they’re invested in keeping your streets clean, then that city is sending a message that you count as a human being. That’s the foundation for everything else.”