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Designing Healthy Communities

Designing Healthy Communities

Architects, designers, researchers and policy makers discuss strategies for initiating change and rethinking America’s unhealthiest neighborhoods.

On Veteran’s Day, Place Matters: Design for Population Health—a conversation Dean of Graduate Studies Patti Phillips describes as “one of the most significant and vital of our day”—brought together Providence-based public health experts, policy makers, designers and architects. Supported by the Brown-RISD Committee for Inter-Institutional Collaboration (BRCIC) and hosted by Brown’s School of Public Health, the interdisciplinary panel shared strategies for leveraging research and designing healthier urban communities.

Dr. Richard J. Jackson of UCLA’s School of Public Health launched the event with a personal and motivating keynote address. His first experience of infectious disease was the loss of his father to polio when he was a child, and he began pursuing environmental epidemiology as a young pediatrician in California caring for babies born with deformities that were later linked to agricultural chemicals.

Jackson laid out in detail America’s decline in health since developers began designing for cars rather than people and government subsidies made high-fructose corn syrup and other unhealthy foods staples of the American diet. Rather than “dumping more money into medical care,” he asserted, “we need to create conditions where people can be healthy.”

Two of the panelists who participated in the discussion that followed are working in government to set policies that do exactly that. Dr. Michael Fine, director of the RI Department of Health, and Peter Asen, director of Providence’s Healthy Communities Office, shared their experiences as community organizers working to drive systemic change. They emphasized the importance of working at the neighborhood level and, in Fine’s words, “building community where it is.”

“The greatest action is taking place at the city/mayoral level,” added panel moderator and Associate Professor of Industrial Design Charlie Cannon. “Act locally. It’s working.”

But how does one successfully build community in neighborhoods that are already broken? Brown’s Assistant Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences Akilah Dulin-Keita recommended starting by “including all key stakeholders and pairing interventions with infrastructure design.” It’s not enough, for example, to build a supermarket in a poor neighborhood where people have been living for years without access to healthy food. You must also provide nutritional education and healthy recipes via programs like Providence’s Fresh to You. And, as Dulin-Keita noted, “behavioral change takes time.”

Another driving force behind building community, according to DownCity Design’s Manuel Cordero, is a sense of ownership. An architect and critic in RISD’s Architecture department, Cordero founded the volunteer-powered DownCity to create change that is “not supported by Providence’s current infrastructure” and to empower the next generation of change agents.

Landscape Architecture Senior Critic Nadine Gerdts has made similar discoveries in her work with InsideOut Studio and the Boston Schoolyard Initiative. Allowing the kids to do the work, she said, creates that sense of ownership as well as “civic responsibility, love and connection.”

“What about gentrification?” asked a student in the audience. “How do we keep neighborhood improvements from forcing out low-income residents?” Dulin-Keita, who has studied a federal program known as HOPE VI development (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere), pointed to mixed-income neighborhoods as a key to avoiding gentrification. And Gerdts added that “gentrification and equity are complex issues” that need to be discussed within the community.

“Every intervention has negatives,” said Jackson, by way of wrapping up the spirited discussion. “But nothing will change if you don’t have a vision. Pick one thing to focus on—like education—and you’re on your way.”

Simone Solondz

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