Mapping a Path to Longer and Healthier Lives Across Atlanta

Jun 10, 2015, 2:52 PM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

Two Atlanta neighborhoods, Buckhead and Bankhead, are separated by a mere five miles. Even their names are just two small letters apart. And yet the high-end shopping mecca dubbed Buckhead boasts an average life expectancy of 84 years, while in Bankhead—a neighborhood in transition that’s home to a newly burgeoning arts community—its residents face a life expectancy that’s a full 13 years shorter.  

This map of Atlanta—one of a series from the Center for Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), funded by RWJF, shows that our zip codes might be a better predictor of health than our genetic codes. Why? Because where we live affects our health and wellbeing in complex ways. Among them, according to VCU, are a scarcity of jobs and quality schools, and fewer opportunities to access healthy affordable foods and safe places to be active.

This isn’t the first time Atlantans have bore witness to to inequity in their community, and today, community leaders are drawing inspiration from their past. Here in the city that served as the capitol of the Civil Rights Movement, community leaders are responding just as previous generations once did—by bringing together a diverse coalition to advance health equity and serve as a model for communities far beyond the Peachtree State.

This new effort started four years ago, when a group of leaders from a number of key sectors—including hospitals, public health, local government, transportation and community development—formed the Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement (ARCHI). Collectively dedicated to assessing the health priorities of Atlanta and crafting local investments that yield results, ARCHI partners meet regularly to discuss benchmarks, action plans, successes and road blocks in their efforts.

Karen Minyard, PhD, director of the Georgia Health Policy Center (an ARCHI member organization), says the group is searching for innovations and aligning existing good ideas in order to optimize the effectiveness of each program.

Informed by the collaborative efforts of ARCHI, the policy center recently conducted a health impact assessment (HIA) to understand how tax incentives to build affordable housing can affect both housing for vulnerable populations as well as community development. By broadly examining the impact of housing, Minyard and her colleagues discovered something that at first glance might seem counterintuitive: Educational disparities could actually be reduced by focusing on affordable housing.

In Atlanta, the Department of Community Affairs awards tax credits for affordable housing projects.

With years of data available to identify the city’s best schools, the Georgia Health Policy Center realized that by adjusting the criteria for this incentive, tax credits could be used to motivate developers to build affordable housing near the city’s strongest-performing schools. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs adopted this recommendation, and city leaders are eager to begin studying its effects.

“This HIA is at the forefront of an increasingly influential field that connects health to community development,” says Elizabeth Fuller, associate project director at the policy center.

In fact, as a community, Atlanta has been a leader in utilizing HIAs to advance health equity. Prior to aforementioned efforts of the Georgia Health Policy Center, an HIA funded by RWJF, and jointly conducted by the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, looked at the health impacts of the Atlanta Beltline—a 22-mile repurposed rail line now serving as a multi-use trail and park system in the heart of the city. When published in 2007, the HIA provided a diverse set of recommendations to improve health outcomes by addressing issues of physical activity, access to healthy foods and safety, among others. Two years ago, the HIA’s recommendation to establish a Beltline police force was implemented virtually word-for-word by the city.

Case studies such as the Atlanta Beltline are the types of results that the Health Impact Project—a collaboration of RWJF and The Pew Charitable Trusts—seeks to foster. Through funding opportunities, infrastructure development and networking efforts, the Project is supporting the HIA efforts of groups like ARCHI and cities like Atlanta to advance health equity in local, state and federal policies.

Finally, looking beyond the use of HIA’s, ARCHI partners are reaching across other traditional boundaries that have separated like-minded leaders in a pursuit of improved health equity. For example, Grady Health System and the United Way of Greater Atlanta recently began a partnership to reduce the volume of costly emergency room visits and improve chronic care for patients.

As health delivery specialists, Grady Health System has worked to identify people who frequently ended up in Grady emergency rooms and then provided that data to the community-focused United Way. The United Way takes that data to reach those who have been identified as heavy users of ERs. It then sends trained community health workers into Atlanta’s neighborhoods to provide these residents with home-based care and case management services.

These types of efforts and coordination could make a difference in communities across the U.S. facing the same life expectancy gaps as Atlanta. By bringing a diverse set of partners to the table, Atlanta is showing the power of collaboration to conquer longstanding challenges and to build a healthy future for all.