Health Beyond Health Care: Greening the Blight - Cities and Towns Take on the Challenge

Jul 14, 2014, 1:58 PM

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.

file A woman takes part in the Clean and Green program (Courtesy: Bon Secours Health System)

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.

file A man works on landscaping as part of the Clean and Green program (Courtesy: Bon Secours Health System)

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.

According to staff member Tony Goff, because drug dealers sometimes stash drugs in food bags, Clean and Green members would sometimes unwittingly pick up drug stashes and throw them away.

“As time went on,” said Goff, “when [our] Clean and Green team approached an area where drug dealing was occurring, the dealers would pick up their operation and take it somewhere else.”

In Spokane, Washington, which was one of six communities to win the 2014 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health prize, a program called Neighborhoods Matter is a community-driven, community-based approach aimed at reducing health disparities in the area. Neighborhoods Matter is a program of the Spokane Regional Health District to bring people who live in that community together on improvement projects. One critical project, said Alisa May, executive director of the community group Priority Spokane, is to clean up Grant Park, which is adjacent to a neighborhood elementary school. Grant Park’s Facebook page now boasts about the project’s success, including garden beds community members can use for their own growing.

Neighborhoods Matter has three overarching goals, said May:

  • Expand neighborhood capacity to address root causes of health issues
  • Create connectivity among neighborhood residents
  • Create sustainability

"Neighborhoods Matter believes in connecting neighbors and strengthening communities,” said May. “We focus on the assets present in communities, particularly the commitment and dedication of residents. We view residents as the experts in identifying and addressing the issues and concerns present in their community.” 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.