Category Archives: Green Space
Earlier this year, when a federal task force convened to look at how to help Detroit pull out of bankruptcy and regain resident and business confidence, one of the first recommendations was to assess the many blighted areas of the city—typically created when residents leave an area in droves, or when a business moves out of a building and isn’t replaced by another—and begin restoring them for residential, business or green space use.
Blight matters. Beyond making a city ugly, abandoned areas become a haven for trash, toxic elements, drug sales and prostitution. In Dorchester, outside Boston, a space sold by the city for a parking lot was left vacant for years and became a trash dump with mounds of cigarettes, and cars and tires—all leaching toxins.
A growing number of communities are starting to clean up those lots. In Baltimore, flight from the city has left close to a million homes and apartment buildings vacant over the last few decades, leaving in their place empty, dirty spaces that invite crime and trash. Bon Secours Community Works—the foundation of the Bon Secours Health System with hospitals in Baltimore and other cities—supports initiatives aimed at creating stable housing, including a program called Clean and Green, which is a part of Bon Secours' Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization Department.
Clean and Green is a landscaping training program that has transformed more than 85 vacant lots into green spaces, and has also begun to initiate community arts projects such as large public murals and community gardens. The program is designed to teach green job development skills, as well as provide free cleanup and beautification services to Baltimore neighborhoods.
Each program team is hired for six months of on-the-job training in green landscaping, during which they learn how to use landscaping and gardening tools and then go out into the field to clean lots, plant trees, pick up trash and do weeding. As part of their training, each individual gives at least three presentations about some aspect of green landscaping that they’ve learned, further preparing them for job interviews and jobs in the field. Each summer, youth employees also join the Clean and Green team for six weeks, working alongside the adults to learn about green landscaping and giving back to a community.
In the 1970s and 80s, residents of the Bronx, one of New York City’s five boroughs, were so anxious to leave the crime-ridden area that many residential and commercial buildings—once majestic and architecturally rich—were torched and empty for decades. Now fifty years later there’s a waiting list of thousands for Via Verde, a new low- and middle-income Bronx housing complex that opened last year. Many features set the complex apart from almost any other housing development in the United States, including an emphasis on greenery from almost every vantage point of the building. This helps create a calming and beautiful atmosphere for the residents, many of whom grew up in crowded housing projects where any nearby parks were usually too dangerous to enjoy.
Why is housing important for health? A lack of affordable rental housing can push more tenants into substandard or overcrowded living situations. Living in unaffordable housing also leaves fewer resources for the things that can keep a family healthy, such as healthy food or preventative health care. Low-income housing also has a reputation for being unhealthy, and for good reason—more than 6 million housing units in the U.S. have deficiencies such as lead paint hazards; allergens, dampness and mold that can trigger asthma; and unsafe structural issues that can cause falls and other injuries. Via Verde and other similar efforts seek to change all that, with housing that is not only affordable but also safe, healthy and even environmentally sound and sustainable (which in turn also saves on costs).
The design for Via Verde was the winner of a 2006 competition hosted by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development; the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects; the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA); and the Enterprise Foundation. It was New York City’s first juried design competition for affordable and sustainable housing.
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
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.
Jane Brody is the Personal Health columnist for The New York Times. She joined the newspaper in 1965 as a specialist in medicine and biology after receiving degrees in biochemistry and writing for multiple college newspapers, as well as for the Minneapolis Tribune. With her column she has seen and reported on almost 50 years in the evolution of personal and community health.
NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Brody about her take on the state of community health—and what we can all do to improve it.
NewPublicHealth: Over the years, what efforts have you seen that you think have been most effective at improving community health?
Jane Brody: Well, I think one of the most exciting things that’s happened in New York City, and possibly in other cities as well, is getting better food to people who live in food deserts. For example, collecting food that would otherwise be wasted and bringing it to communities where people get free food that is healthy, fresh, and they even have demonstrations of recipes. In fact, I got one of my favorite recipes—it’s a green bean frittata—from one of their demonstrations that I attended just to see how it all worked out.
We’ve also, as you’ve no doubt heard, been putting in all of these bike lanes and we now have introduced the Bike Share Program, which is not inexpensive, but it does at least give more people an opportunity to get off their butts and get out of their cars and maybe even not even use public transportation in some cases, but to get some exercise to and from work, which is wonderful. I remember during one of the transit strikes that we had in New York City, I rode my bicycle from Brooklyn to Times Square where I work, over the bridges and stuff, and it was just wonderful because I got my exercise in at the same time as I got to work and I didn’t have to spend an extra hour exercising. There have been improvements. We have, of course, public pools that are only open in the summer, but in summer is better than no public pools and nobody has to pay anything for a public pool, which is really great.