Health Keynote: Unhealthy Spaces, How they Got that Way, and Who Gains When They Improve
By Bill Millard
A moment of silence for victims of police shootings (including onetime Parks Department employee Eric Garner) set a tone of solemnity to launch the Health Keynote by Mindy Thompson Fullilove, author of Urban Alchemy (2013), Root Shock (2004), and other books chronicling the development of America’s urban environment. Upgrading parks and streets without recognizing their history, including the unsavory dialectic of gentrification and racism, would be a hollow sense of active design, Fullilove contends. The problems of poor health in urban spaces are inextricable from residential segregation, economic disenfranchisement, and planned urban shrinkage.
Fullilove, drawing on archival work by Molly Kaufman and Aubrey Murdock of New Jersey’s community-based University of Orange, connected these problems to the wider “zigzag pattern” in which racism has evolved through the eras of slavery, abolitionism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, redlining, urban renewal, and displacement. Improving urban neighborhoods, she argues, depends on understanding the implicit psychologies and explicit policies that have categorized various foreign-born and minority groups (not, say, polluting industries or predatory landlords) as “detrimental influences.” Progress against such conditions occurs, but in piecemeal and contingent ways.
One step forward came in 2009 in East Austin, TX, where the grassroots group People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER) convinced city officials to replace the Holly Street Power Plant – a toxic, noisy, accident-prone facility sited in a residential area in a routine case of environmental racism – with a smaller substation. PODER’s victory took decades, however, and didn’t come without costs: as property values rose, one resident commented in a video on the community’s changes, “We cleaned it all up just so you professionals, mostly all white, can now come and take over.”
The pattern is all too familiar to New Yorkers, where cycles of disinvestment and decline, followed by renewal and property-value spikes, often drive out the very long-term residents who endured the hard years and earned the benefits that arise as neighborhoods revive. Fullilove noted how there is nothing “natural” about this process. It is a serial effect of conscious policies, as when the New Deal-era Home Owners’ Loan Corporation defined certain areas as unmortgageable based on percentages of foreign-born and African-American residents, ultimately leading to the displacement of 1 million people in 2,500 “urban renewal” projects in 993 cities. Describing the belief that “what happens to the Other does not happen to me” as a mental illness akin to the psychology of apartheid, Fullilove observed how different groups’ reactions to incidents like the Freddie Gray killing in Baltimore indicate that it is far from extinct. Facilitating fitness, she finds, is only one step toward rendering an environment healthy in a broad and meaningful sense: “I was asking myself whether designing for active living wasn’t the problem we need to resolve…. We have to acknowledge, if we want to design an equitable city, we don’t simply want to design a great city for wealthy white people to jog.”
Commissioners Translate Evidence to Across-the-Board Upgrades
By Bill Millard
Expanding on Fullilove’s observations, David Burney, FAIA, AIANY interim executive director and Center for Active Design (CAD) chair, observed that “in this era of Big Data, we’ve come to realize even more the relations between health disparities and other forms of social inequity.” The task of connecting public policy to the expanding research on health-environment relations falls substantially to the NYC commissioners of Design and Construction, Parks, Health, Transportation, City Planning, Aging, People with Disabilities, and Children’s Services. As these officials increasingly coordinate municipal efforts that have frequently been underfunded and siloed, some projects can serve multiple populations and multiple goals. Though “synergy” has become a buzzword, the close relations among variables affecting community health imply that progress in any area usually has positive spillover effects.
NYC Department of Design + Construction (DDC) Commissioner Feniosky A. Peña-Mora spotlighted La Plaza de las Americas in Washington Heights, where DDC and the Department of Transportation (DOT) broke ground last March on upgrades to a longtime community marketplace, bringing fountains, trees, recreational areas, 14,000 square feet of pedestrian space, water, and electrical power to an asphalt area used by produce vendors. Karen Resnick, subbing for the Department of Aging’s Donna Corrado, Ph.D., pointed to her department’s collaboration with the New York Academy of Medicine since 2009 on 59 “Age-friendly NYC” initiatives, working to bring evidence-based active design to senior centers and programs. At the other end of the lifespan, Eden Hauslaib of Children’s Services cited renovations of older playground equipment as a way to help ameliorate the “toxic stress” in many kids’ lives. Sonia Angell of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, noted that students with physical fitness in the upper 5% score 36% higher on standardized tests than their least-fit peers. She introduced the new Active Design Toolkit for Schools, a simple extension of the Active Design Guidelines prepared by the Partnership for a Healthier New York City.
Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver observed that 215 underfunded city parks will be addressed in an equity-promoting effort, beginning with transformation of 35 sites “from a Robert Moses-era park to a 21st-century park” and bringing more citizens within a 10-minute walk of a park, the goal set by PlaNYC and upheld by the Office of Sustainability. City Planning’s Purnima Kapur stressed the connections among sustainable growth, affordability, equity, and neighborhood livability as the city strives to accommodate a population growing beyond 8.4 million people, and attain Mayor de Blasio’s goals of building or preserving 200,000 affordable housing units plus 160,000 new market-rate units in all five boroughs, with attractions including bicycle parking, walkable spaces, zoning-incentivized supermarkets, and requirements for vehicle-parking lots to include landscaping, bioswales, and trees.
Victor Calise, commissioner for people with disabilities (comprising 800,000 New Yorkers, he noted, or 10% of the population), reminded the audience that “at some point in your life you’ll either become disabled, be temporarily disabled, or know someone with a disability.” He described specific strategies for combining active and inclusive design in different realms, including working with DOT on beeping street crossings to guide the visually impaired, with Parks on accessible exercise equipment and programs, and with Citibike to increase access through new designs such as hand cycles, tricycles, and tandem bikes that can open the program to the visually disabled.
Perhaps the most far-reaching current initiative, Vision Zero, undergirds multiple transformations of civic space toward greater safety, sustainability, and equity, said DOT Assistant Commissioner Wendy Feuer. Along with more bike lanes, racks, and expansion of Citibike to 12,000 bikes over the next four years, her department promotes vehicle-slowing medians, plantings in business improvement districts, seating and leaning bars to assist the elderly at Select Bus Service stations, and ongoing efforts to improve communication with the communities served. Documenting the tripling in the number of bikes coming into the center city, she observed, is a useful metric, but only a step in an ongoing process. Next, DOT strives to address a question that can help align infrastructural change with community needs and desires: “Who are these people?”
Design Keynote: Healthy Neighborhoods: Design for Active Living, Strong Communities, and Economic Diversity
By Julia Christie
The Office of Neighborhood Strategies was created within Mayor de Blasio’s Housing Plan “to take to the streets what the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) does,” said Commissioner of Neighborhood Strategies Daniel Hernandez, a Design Keynote speaker at FitCity10. Hernandez outlined three critical goals and principles for the agency: meeting real demographic needs across incomes in neighborhoods; reinventing the planning process to work across agencies and include the community; and making economic diversity in neighborhoods a cornerstone of housing development. Delivering an abbreviated history of affordable housing in New York, Hernandez focused on how design movements have approached public health, starting with disease-driven slum clearance of the 1950s and the towers-in-the-park that replaced them (designs that provided cleaner air but poor social conditions), the community-driven design work of New Urbanism in the 1990s, and how, coupled with an attention to green environmental practices, the Active Design movement has emerged in our current moment.
Pointing to affordable housing projects such as Via Verde and Arbor House in the Bronx, Hernandez applauded their broad approach to healthy living. The developments provide a diversity of outdoor spaces, including green roofs at different levels that are accessible by stairs; fitness, health, and wellness centers; access to healthy food; proximity to sports facilities; and urban gardens. The Office of Neighborhood Strategies is particularly interested in programs that do not rely on zoning changes to facilitate healthy, vibrant, and affordable neighborhoods. Upcoming initiatives include creating greater access to community healthcare workers, clearing obstacles in RFP (request for proposal) pipelines, pushing for mandatory inclusionary zoning, and forging anti-harassment partnerships among legal- and tenant-organizers. In a city where luxury towers are growing like weeds, Hernandez emphasized that affordability, economic diversity, and healthy neighborhoods are necessary to the vitality of our city.