Poorly thought-out urban design is not only a detriment to the health of residents, as we have discussed in-depth on this blog, but it is also a key driver of social inequity in cities. One organization attempting to reverse this trend is the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge, or SPARCC. The coalition has committed to spending $90 million over the next three years to help communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Memphis, and Atlanta address the urban design factors that cause social and health inequalities.
SPARCC states that the first step toward achieving their mission is increasing collaboration across public and private sectors, and community members. By working with a range of health organizations, SPARCC will have access to different knowledge, resources, and strategies. Community engagement will lead to key insights about the communities’ beliefs, values, and needs, that will inform the most appropriate and impactful interventions. To build these networks, SPARCC starts by identifying agencies and organizations in their target communities and reaching out to form partnerships. By increasing their size and domain, SPARCC and their partners have a greater chance of influencing policymakers and city planners.
An example of SPARCC’s initiatives is their collaboration with the Transportation Alliance in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta currently ranks second in the United States for income inequality. A key driver of this is the amount of annual income that goes toward transportation, as only 3.4% of jobs in the city are accessible by a 45-minute or less commute. SPARCC is working with the Transportation Alliance to develop new affordable housing, clinics near train stations, and building new transit lines in areas with low access.
Photo: courtesy SPARCC
SPARCC has large goals for transforming and enhancing the structures in their selected cities, and ultimately reducing the large social inequalities that exist today. While their work will need to be continued long after the three-year initiative ends, they are building a vital framework to support forward progression. By creating and nurturing strong relationships with community organizations, policymakers, and other stakeholders, SPARCC will leave behind a strong network that can continue to push for change in urban design, and improved health and social justice.
An individual’s health is directly influenced by his or her surrounding environment. Research has shown that environmental characteristics are linked with many chronic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. These structures also impact individuals’ mental health, as built environment is associated with depression and anxiety. These negative impacts disproportionately impact lower-income communities, which often have limited access to fresh healthy foods, safe outdoor spaces for exercise and community gathering, and increased prevalence of environmental pollutants.
To combat this problem and promote healthier communities, many large health agencies in the United States pledged to support the Joint Call to Action, a partnership between public health and environmental practitioners. Organizations including the American Public Health Association, the American Institute of Architects, and the National Recreation and Park Association, will work together to reduce the health threats associated with weak environmental structures, and the inequities across communities. To accomplish this mission, the organizations determined the following necessary steps:
- Build Relationships
- The first step toward building smarter, health-promoting environments is to solidify strong partnerships between public health professionals, design leaders, and community organizations. This collaboration will lead to an understanding of community needs, and advanced knowledge to inform interventions.
- Establish Health Goals
- To effectively track progress and ensure goals are met, the groups must consult existing health data, create metrics for resident well-being, and develop methods to measure health outcomes upon program completion.
- Implement Strategies to Improve Health
- Organizations need to advocate for and adopt policies that promote population health. They must also implement plans and developments that will improve opportunities for healthy foods, and safe physical environments for exercise and community gathering.
- Share Expertise
- Disseminating information is key to educate other organizations on successful methods, and maintain a bond with the community by keeping open lines of communication. Organizations should share their efforts and results as much as possible to learn from each other and build off past successes.
The partnering organizations in the Joint Call to Action have a detailed plan that will help them reach their goal of improving health in communities. The steps they outlined can be applied to all health organizations, big and small. At PARCS, we invest in our partnership with the NYC Parks Department to share expertise and maximize success, and we collaborate with community centers and leaders across all five boroughs, to ensure that we understand their values and work toward a shared mission. By working with residents to assess relationships with their surrounding environments, we hope to discover the best methods to improve these structures, and in turn, community health.