Healthier Communities Start With Kids

Dec 10, 2018, 11:30 AM, Posted by

Focusing on our community’s youngest residents can spark broad vision and change.

A boy works on an art project at a local community center.

The small city of Hudson is nestled in Upstate New York and home to fewer than 7,000 people. The city was hit hard by deindustrialization in the late 20th century, facing economic decline as factories closed and industry jobs left. In recent years development has surged, with the opening of antique stores, restaurants and art galleries. The city has become a popular destination for tourists and second-home owners.

While our town is often celebrated as a story of revival, development has not benefited all of our community’s residents. For example, despite the presence of several high-end restaurants, there is still no grocery store. Rising costs have increased inequity, causing displacement for many families. Public funding is often directed toward maintaining Hudson as an attractive tourist destination versus addressing the needs of local youth and families.

Our organizations here in Hudson, Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood and Kite’s Nest, have been working in partnership with many community organizations and individuals to improve conditions for youth and families.

Last year we were one of six communities across the country that were selected to participate in Raising Places, an effort to explore and spark ideas on how to create healthier communities that are vibrant places for kids to grow up. Greater Good Studio, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, designed and facilitated this work.

Supporting Families Where They Live

Where we live shapes how well and how long we live. To raise healthy kids, families need stability and support. Raising Places emphasized that what is good for kids is also good for communities as a whole—stable housing that is affordable and safe; robust public transportation that benefits residents of every age; public spaces that support play; and opportunities to participate in the local economy.

How communities are designed and built and the opportunities they offer, including the decisions their residents and leaders make, create paths toward or away from health and quality of life for families. Developing these opportunities by uniting community members and leaders is exactly what Raising Places was about. The project recognized that a collective effort was necessary for identifying barriers that prevent kids and families from thriving and for finding solutions tailored to each community.

Principles to Guide Community Transformation

Every community has its own challenges and assets. This was evident through the Raising Places communities, which ranged from a rural town of 450 people to an urban neighborhood of 60,000. Despite these differences, the principles we applied through Raising Places could be useful to any community:

  • Focus on children. Framing the conversation around the wellbeing of children helps bring different stakeholders together and makes it easier to address complex issues. When we approach challenges in housing and jobs from the perspective of young people, we can make more progress in ways that benefit everyone.
  • Collaborate across sectors and perspectives. An important aspect of Raising Places was encouraging collaboration among diverse groups ranging from those working in community development to public health to early care and education. Individuals from across these and other sectors worked together as part of each community’s design team and came together around prototyping initial ideas—balancing clear group structure and clear ways for individuals to contribute.
  • Engage kids and families. It was just as important to bring youth and families into the conversations around the issues that affect them. Young people are rarely engaged as experts in their own experiences, and they provide valuable ideas and energy. And it’s critical that parents, grandparents and caregivers have a voice, especially when their kids are young and unable to advocate for themselves.

How Hudson is Putting These Principles into Action

Designing communities with kids as the priority not only helps set the next generation up for success, but it creates places where we all want to live. Hudson is a great example of this.

As our community design team began work through Raising Places to address one of our biggest issue—creating employment pathways for young people—transportation kept emerging as a key challenge. For decades, transportation challenges in our community have seemed intractable.

In order to improve the transit system, our community’s youth advisory board—a group of eight teenagers—led a workshop with residents to get their input on possible bus stop locations, routes and times. With this data, a pilot program was launched over the summer that provided free bus transportation to allow kids and teen staff to get to and from various summer youth programs.

As a result, we now have a new year-round, federally-funded bus system for children and teens, launched in partnership with our county department of social services and local school district. Every day, more than 65 children and teens receive free transportation after school, allowing kids and families to take advantage of high-quality out-of-school time programs in the area.

But this is not only a story of an improved transportation system. It’s an example of what’s possible when we support youth and community to design their own solutions. It’s an example of what happens when we work in partnership across organizations and agencies, to help public systems actively listen and respond to the communities they serve.

We’re hoping this is just the beginning of continued improvement of the public transit system, which will also benefit the broader community. It all started by approaching a challenge from the perspective of young people.

As more and more residents become involved in creating solutions like these in Hudson, we hope to be able to tell a new story about Hudson: a story about how a different approach to development can benefit all residents.

Learn more about what goes into building communities that prioritize the needs of children and families, and check out other collaborative, place-based efforts that RWJF is supporting to foster safer, healthier communities for kids.

about the authors

Sara Kendall is a co-founder and the assistant director of Kite’s Nest, a center for liberatory education in Hudson, N.Y. She is also a professor at Dawson College.

Joan E. Hunt is the co-director of the Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood, which works to support youth and families in the Hudson City School District from cradle to career.