Now Viewing: Built Environment and Health

How Bitter Melon Improved Housing in Providence, Rhode Island

Dec 9, 2019, 9:45 AM, Posted by Angela Bannerman Ankoma, Sharon Conard-Wells

Many housing projects focus exclusively on putting a roof over peoples’ heads. We sought a broader approach that integrates cultural values into kitchens, homes and neighborhoods.

Illustration of a neighborhood.

The literal translation of the word “sankofa,” from the Akan tribe in Ghana, means "go back and fetch it.” Figuratively, it captures an important belief in Akan culture: While the future brings new learning, knowledge from the past must not be forgotten.

This principle guided our efforts to transform 10 formerly blighted lots into a vibrant community of 50 modern “green” apartments in Providence, Rhode Island’s diverse West End community. The $13.5 million development is connected to 30,000 square feet of community garden space. Single fathers come with sons, pastors come with children and people sit under the garden’s pergola, which was built by local youth volunteers. It is, as one article put it, a “beehive of activity.”

View full post

Home Is Where Our Health Is

Jul 22, 2019, 12:00 PM, Posted by Jessica Mark, Najaf Ahmad

Where we live affects how long and how well we live. Yet, affordable housing is out of reach for too many. RWJF is addressing housing stability, equity, and health through data and research.

Everyone should have the opportunity to live in a safe community.

There is growing evidence that safe and secure housing is a critical factor in achieving good health. Where we live can determine whether we’re connected to: safe places to play and be active; quality jobs and schools; and transportation to get us where we need to go. Yet millions of people in America live in substandard or overcrowded housing, temporary shelters, in cars, and on streets. Disadvantages also exist for the many living in residentially segregated neighborhoods isolated from opportunity. For them and others, the inability to access quality housing and neighborhoods deepens challenges and makes it much more difficult to be healthy and break out of poverty. 

Housing’s profound effect on health is often overlooked and misunderstood. This year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), led by President and CEO Richard Besser, MD, is shining a light on the link between housing and health. In his Annual Message, Besser discusses how safe and affordable housing supports positive outcomes across the lifespan—and how unsafe and insecure housing can deepen inequity and undermine a Culture of Health. 

He shares stories from housing initiatives across the country—from Boligee, Ala., to Chelsea, Mass., to San Antonio. These examples show that when we improve the quality and affordability of housing—health and lives also improve. Creating safe and affordable housing—as an essential part of comprehensive efforts to transform impoverished neighborhoods into places of opportunity—becomes a pathway to helping communities thrive.

View full post

How Supportive Housing Uplifts Families in Crisis

Oct 15, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by Kerry Anne McGeary

Irma’s troubled life culminated in being thrown down the stairs when she was six months pregnant. Thanks to a program that’s addressing system-wide change, Irma and her family are now safe and secure with a new home and a brighter future. 

Supportive Housing program case worker, Melissa Rowe (right) with her client Irma and three of Irma's four children. Supportive Housing program case worker, Melissa Rowe (in white shirt) with her client Irma and three of Irma's four children: Joel, age 5, Delicia, age 3 and Julio, age 18 months.

Editor’s Note: Although foster care placement is sometimes necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of children, research indicates that keeping families together is generally better for children, parents, and the community. Working with the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) launched the Keeping Families Together (KFT) pilot in 2007 to explore whether supportive housing can help vulnerable families grow stronger, safer and healthier so that children—and their parents—may thrive. With the release of new findings from a federal demonstration project inspired by KFT, we are resurfacing this post.  

From too early an age, Irma faced a seemingly endless series of traumatic events that life threw at her as best she could—on her own.

But after a domestic crisis left her hospitalized, homeless, jobless, and in danger of losing her infant son, Irma finally received help from a supportive housing program that changed her life.

Keeping Families Together—the RWJF-supported model for the program that helped Irma turn her life around—has become my own personal touchstone for what building a Culture of Health should look like in the real world.

Irma’s story illustrates both the power of this model and the inner resilience that so many struggling families possess.

View full post

Four Ways to Build Inclusive, Healthy Places for All

Jul 25, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by Sharon Roerty

Inclusive public spaces for all are a central part of healthy, resilient communities. A new framework can help ensure that processes for shaping these spaces lead to design decisions that promote equity.

Healthy Places Swing Set

It has been said that inspiration comes when you least expect it. My visit to Melbourne, Australia, inspired me to take an international look at place-making. I was standing in Federation Square, restlessly waiting for my daughter to finish her shift. I hadn’t seen her in nearly a year. I was wearing my mom hat, not my urban planner’s hat.

Nevertheless, as my eyes swept the Square, I had the sense of being in a very special place. And while I didn’t know it at the time, I was not surprised to later learn that Federation Square in the heart of Melbourne has been recognized as one of the best public squares in the world. Fed Square, built on top of a working railway, comprises sculpted and natural elements; it has small spaces like fire pits; and large and medium-size open spaces for planned and unplanned activity. There is a large TV screen that broadcasts international and national sporting events (it is not always on). The Square is open 24 hours a day; has free Wi-Fi for all; rest rooms; and no signs prohibiting activity or lingering. Restaurants open their doors to it; and transit lines and shops surround it.

I visited Fed Square daily for eight days, and what impressed me was how well it reflected Melbourne’s rich cultural diversity; how seamlessly it connected to the streets, buildings and facilities on its periphery; and how welcoming it always felt. It is a place for people—the well-heeled, the not-so lucky—and everyone in between. I should note, though, that Federation Square’s value as an open public space and cultural hub is currently being tested. Controversial changes to it are pushing forward sans public review and participation.

View full post

How Housing Impacts the Health of People Living With HIV/AIDS

Apr 12, 2018, 3:00 PM, Posted by Safiya George

Inadequate housing is a tremendous barrier to achieving good health—especially when dealing with a chronic illness. A team of researchers is examining largely rural counties in West Alabama to assess the impact of stable housing on the well-being of people living with HIV/AIDS.

A row of homes on a tree-lined street.

We know that where we live, work, learn, and play greatly impacts our health. Especially important among these, and too often overlooked, is the impact of where we live. Housing is tied to health in powerful and inextricable ways. Think about the steps you take each morning to care for yourself, or each evening when you go to sleep. What would happen if you didn’t know where you would sleep that night, or weren’t sure how long you had until you were forced to find new shelter? Would you still take the time to go through your routines, if there was nothing routine about them? Would you set up relationships with health providers if you might not live in the same community next month—or even next week?

I faced homelessness twice and they were the most stressful experiences in my life. Lack of access to stable housing can feel like an insurmountable barrier to achieving good health and well-being—even more so when one is dealing with a chronic illness or other health challenges.

View full post

What’s the Connection Between Residential Segregation and Health?

Apr 3, 2018, 4:00 PM, Posted by Donald F. Schwarz

Residential segregation is a fundamental cause of health disparities. We need to take steps that will reduce health risks caused by segregation and lead to more equitable, healthier communities. 

Graphic illustration depicting residential segregation

For some, perhaps the mere mention of segregation suggests the past, a shameful historic moment we have moved beyond. But the truth is, residential segregation, especially the separation of whites and blacks or Hispanics in the same community, continues to have lasting implications for the well-being of people of color and the health of a community.

In many U.S. counties and cities, neighborhoods with little diversity are the daily reality. When neighborhoods are segregated, so too are schools, public services, jobs and other kinds of opportunities that affect health. We know that in communities where there are more opportunities for everyone, there is better health.

The 2016 County Health Rankings released today provide a chance for every community to take a hard look at whether everyone living there has opportunity for health and well-being. The Rankings look at many interconnected factors that influence community health including education, jobs, smoking, physical inactivity and access to health care. This year, we added a new measure on residential segregation to help communities see where disparities may cluster because some neighborhoods or areas have been cut off from opportunities and investments that fuel good health. 

View full post

A Community Living Room For Immigrant Families

Jan 25, 2018, 3:00 PM, Posted by Jennifer Lin, Kari Lee

Chinatown is one of San Francisco’s densest neighborhoods, forcing many to live in cramped single-room occupancy hotels known as SROs. The Chinatown YMCA has developed a program to help families in SRO housing build a sense of community with others facing similar circumstances.

Homework

Dinnertime is stressful for Ruiyi Li, a married mother of two who lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

She has to wait in line for almost an hour to use a communal kitchen in the building where her family rents a single room for $400 a month.

Then there’s the problem of how to eat the meal. The family’s tight dwelling is slightly wider and longer than the size of a double bed, with no space for a table. Li, her husband, son and daughter must sit one next to the other on the edge of the lower half of a bunk bed, balancing bowls in their laps.

“Dinner is quick and fast,” Li says using the dialect spoken in her southern Chinese hometown of Toishan. “It doesn’t even feel like the family is eating together.”

View full post

Can a Trash Can Reveal a Community’s Values?

Sep 21, 2017, 12:00 PM, Posted by Karabi Acharya

What can the U.S. learn from Copenhagen about use of 'placemaking' to foster healthier, more inclusive communities?

Bike-friendly Copenhagen street.

One of the most striking cultural symbols upon arriving in Copenhagen is the sheer number of cyclists navigating city streets—in fact bicycles outnumber cars!

But during my recent visit, it was the trash cans that actually caught my eye.

Just as in many U.S. cities, Copenhagen’s citizens can return used bottles and cans for cash. But, unlike other cities, Copenhagen’s trash cans are equipped with small “deposit” shelves on the outside to place recyclables. This provides an easier, safer, and more sanitary way of collecting discarded cans. Instead of digging through trash cans overflowing with smelly garbage and sharp glass, collectors can easily retrieve bottles and cans from these exterior shelves.

A small feature like this speaks volumes about how our public spaces can support social values like dignity and compassion.

View full post

What You Need to Know About Hospital Roles in Community Investment

Mar 15, 2017, 2:00 PM, Posted by Donald F. Schwarz

As anchor institutions, hospitals and health systems are well-positioned to invest resources in creating healthier communities—a few are already leading the way. Their valuable lessons can help others rethink the role hospitals can play in improving health beyond their walls.

Mother pushes kids on a tire swing.

Hospitals have a long tradition of serving as anchor institutions within their communities—not only by providing health care, but by hiring local workers and contractors, buying locally, and building new clinical facilities.

But you probably wouldn’t think of hospitals as financial investors in their local communities. Nor might you consider them experts in managing community revitalization efforts. And yet, why not?

Hospitals as Anchor Institutions for Community Investment

Hospitals and health systems have unique assets that go far beyond their clinical offerings. These include deep community connections and relationships, the ability to make loans, expertise in real estate, finance, and project management, and significant property holdings. All of these can collectively be leveraged to benefit both the community at large and hospitals themselves.

View full post

6 Reasons Why Parks Matter for Health

Aug 22, 2016, 1:45 PM, Posted by Teresa Mozur

As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary of beauty, recreation, and conservation this summer, we asked six leaders why access to public land is vital to everyone's physical and mental health.

Yosemite National Park Yosemite National Park

The National Park Service celebrates its centennial this week, and our national parks have never been more appreciated; visitors made a record-breaking 307.2 million visits to them in 2015. But what many park goers may not realize is that the access to natural scenery and park activities national parks provide play a role in improving health. In fact, research shows that using public parks—even tiny local ones in your neighborhood—contributes to health in a number of ways, from promoting physical activity to improving mental health and even having the potential to reduce health care costs.

To celebrate this milestone in American history, the Culture of Health blog's editorial team asked six leaders to give us their reasons why parks matter for health.

View full post