Building Healthier Places in Birmingham and Beyond

Jun 1, 2015, 11:46 AM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

How a section of Birmingham, Alabama is redeveloping and offering greater opportunities for people at multiple income levels. The secret? Engaging the community throughout the process.

With its elegant homes, pleasant park and bustling stores, the Woodlawn section of Birmingham, Alabama was described in a 1950 news article as “a really great section of Birmingham...typical of the fine things in life." Then came the racial unrest of the 1960s, disruption from urban renewal gone awry and white flight to Birmingham’s suburbs. Joblessness and poverty took root; the housing stock decayed. Today, median income in Woodlawn is just $21,000, less than half the level for Birmingham as a whole.

But now Woodlawn is in the midst of a turnaround, aiming to become not just a neighborhood that prospers economically, but also one where people live healthier lives.

Shoppers at an outside food market in Philadelphia Some of the schools in the Woodlawn Innovation Network include student-run farmers' markets. Image via Woodlawn Foundation.

Examples of this revitalization include:

  • A thriving music scene has developed and is luring start-up businesses and creative people to the neighborhood. Composer, record producer and University of Alabama at Birmingham professor Henry Panion, a frequent collaborator with musicians like Stevie Wonder, renovated a decaying building into a professional recording studio—and in an adjacent one offers music education for neighborhood children. Rock musician Jeffrey Cain helped to launch Communicating Vessels, a company that produces 7-inch vinyl records by Birmingham artists from a storefront recording studio in a part of town now dubbed Music Row.
  • A multisector partnership is working to provide Woodlawn residents with access to health services, wellness programs in schools, “more green space, walking trails, healthy food, quality retail amenities, and more,” according to the organization spearheading these efforts, the Woodlawn Foundation. Central to the vision is mixed-income housing for both poorer and better-off residents, and a redesigning the area’s five schools to focus on “cradle-to-career” STEAM education—science, technology, engineering, arts, and math—and guarantee that up to 90 percent of area kids graduate from high school with substantial preparation for college. The inspiration is the Purpose Built Communities model originally developed in Atlanta, and now spreading across the country with backing from investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett.

Small wonder that Woodlawn’s story is now featured on the Build Healthy Places Network, an effort to link the community development and health and public health sectors that is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Woodlawn’s experience encapsulates key lessons learned from other efforts to revitalize communities and build health equity.

First, cross-sector partnerships are critical, says Donald Schwarz, who directs RWJF’s program work catalyzing demand for healthy places and practices. Community improvement coalitions should include health care providers, public health agencies, urban and transportation planners, architects, education, banking, community development experts, community development financial institutions, and philanthropy. Such partnerships are central to so-called collective impact approaches to addressing complex social problems, such as poor education.  

Second, residents of any community undergoing revitalization must be actively engaged in decision making about plans for redevelopment. One reason is that there can be a fine line between community redevelopment that offers greater opportunities for people at multiple income levels, and outright gentrification that can displace a community’s lower-income residents or seem to exclude them from new amenities, such as revamped parks or new restaurants.

Woodlawn has chosen the former course, not the latter, and longtime residents are pleased. In a video, Arnold King, an elected representative of a Woodlawn neighborhood organization, compliments the Woodlawn Foundation for engaging the community in discussions about goals. “Instead of trying to dictate what’s going on in the neighborhood they come in and try to be a part of it,” opting to be “inclusive, instead of exclusive,” he says.

A third lesson is that health equity will only result from more equitable opportunities, such as better education that can lead to higher incomes and more lifetime stability. “We know that if you haven’t graduated from high school, your life expectancy has gotten worse over last 20 years compared to people who have high school diplomas, whose life expectancy has improved,” Schwarz says. Thus, the focus on “cradle to career” education in Woodlawn—starting with a plan to create a new child development center for zero-to-three year olds—can be understood as a means to improve public health as much as anything else.

By expanding economic opportunity, improving education, rehabilitating housing, and emphasizing health and wellness, communities like Woodlawn seek to epitomize the “fine things in life” once again. And among the finest—“the greatest wealth,” as the ancient Roman poet Virgil wrote—is health.

Susan Dentzer, Senior Policy Adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, former Health Affairs Editor-in-Chief and Health Policy Analyst, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, is one of the nation's most respected health and health policy thought leaders and journalists. Read more of Susan’s posts.