Could City Parks Help Close Health Disparities?

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NYC Parks

This past August, the city announced that five parks across the five boroughs—including Betsy Head—would be awarded $30 million each for major renovations.

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This is a sidebar to our series Death’s Disparities, a series about the growing gap in life expectancy between rich and poor New York.
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Longtime Brownsville resident Bettie Kollock-Wallace has been a cyclist all her life. She rides her bike daily, and for several years now, has led a group of seniors around her neighborhood once a week, sometimes biking all the way to Prospect Park. But Brownsville had no bike lanes until a few years ago, when Kollock-Wallace brought up the issue to the Department of Transportation, and in 2013, after two years of planning, four and a half miles of lanes were added to the neighborhood.

“I’m very thankful, because now I feel safer with the group that I ride with,” Kollock-Wallace says. “There’s more respect for cyclists, and I see more people, in my building where I am, and my community, riding bicycles.”

What Kollock-Wallace sees is the local side of a larger trend. There’s a growing consensus that open space is a critical–and long overlooked–component to neighborhood health. There’s also more awareness of how complicated it can be to turn recreation options into weapons against poor health. Improving people’s access to open space and the benefits it provides, advocates and residents say, is about a lot more than merely providing an outdoor area. Offering services, and paying attention to culture and custom, are critical factors.

Kollock-Wallace, current chair of Community Board 16, jokes that exercise is the love of her life. Along with biking, she’s a personal trainer at the Brownsville Community Center, and also teaches swimming. It’s obvious to her that physical exercise is a big part of health, but she says for an average Brownsville resident who wants to get active, there’s a lack of accessible spaces in the neighborhood—particularly open spaces—where they can do so.

One of the neighborhood’s main parks—the Betsy Head Park on Dumont Avenue—”hasn’t been taken care of,” she says. There are problems there with maintenance and monitoring, she explained, and “there’s a lot of work to be done, in order for everyone in the community to come out and enjoy it as it should be.”

The concerns of Kollock-Wallace and other Brownsville residents seem to have been noted. This past August, the city announced that five parks across the five boroughs—including Betsy Head—would be awarded $30 million each for major renovations.

For the New York State Health Foundation, improving the built environment of neighborhoods–particularly around opportunities for physical activity–is a main priority when it comes to building healthier communities. In Brownsville, through partner organization Community Solutions, the foundation has supported the creation of bike lanes connecting the neighborhood with East New York, and helped form a working group of neighborhood residents to ensure that community voices are incorporated into Betsy Head renovations.

Bronwyn Starr, a program officer at NYSHealth, says a clean, inviting public space can improve a community’s health outcomes in a number of ways. “There’s the mental health component, of just getting outside and having nice things to look at instead of being inside your four walls and hearing sirens,” she says, “and then the physical component, of just being in an open space and being more inclined to take a walk or be active because of that.”

More than space

Viola Greene-Walker, district manager of Community Board 16, agrees about the importance of nearby open spaces for health. “A number of our residents are low-income, they’re landlocked, they are not able to travel outside of the community for different events, even to enroll in a gym,” she says. It’s more than just a question of facilities, however, While she’s seen some improvements to neighborhood spaces as Brownsville has been given more attention by the city, Greene-Walker feels residents still don’t take enough advantage of opportunities, pointing to how renovations alone can be insufficient without deeper issues being addressed.

One issue is public safety: At a November planning session for the $30 million city improvement grant, the desire for better lighting in the park to improve public safety was clear. A year earlier, the Municipal Art Society wrote of the park: “Key to the park’s future are addressing safety concerns and the park’s lack of lighting.”

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Life Expectancy from Battery Park to Brownsville
A timeline of projected lifespans
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Beth Bingham, director of planning and research at New Yorkers for Parks, an organization that has worked with NYSHealth in Brownsville, agrees that many larger issues are at play when it comes to residents’ hesitation around using park space in the neighborhood. One thing she thinks is important is a perception of police harassment. “It can be dangerous in Brownsville to be a young person of color, hanging out with your friends. That means you don’t use the parks,” she says.

It’s hard to tell whether the perceptions of danger or of police overreach reflect reality—NYPD statistics indicate just one felony complaint in Betsy Head Park during the first nine months of 2016—but either way, the hesitations have to be addressed.

Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions, says issues like these point to the importance of programming—going beyond just beautifying a space, to making sure residents feel the space is meant for their use and tailored to their needs. One example of this is a walking group program led by a senior center in Brownsville. “When you have like 60 seniors at once, a couple times a day, going to do Zumba classes in Betsy Head Park, by force of numbers, it makes that place seem safer to others,” she says.

Beyond parks

Andrew Rundle, a professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, co-directs the school’s Built Environment and Health Research Group. Things like open spaces and bike lanes definitely play a part, he said, but it’s important to think about the built environment of a neighborhood as a whole. The general walkability of an area, he noted, is particularly important, and can be particularly susceptible to safety issues.

“From an urban planning design perspective, [walkability] is very much about population density, retail density, public transit density, intersection density—and those are things that tend to be higher in low-income neighborhoods,” he explains. “But if you think about walkability also from a social point of view—of feeling safe, and having a clean street, and having an aesthetically pleasing experience, those tend to be things that are not as prevalent in poor neighborhoods.”

The design of buildings is also a contributor, noted Joanna Frank, executive director of the Center for Active Design, a New York-based organization that uses urban design to promote health. She pointed to research that has found that “lower-income communities have access to less well-maintained infrastructure,” and evidence that suggests that building design can impact how often residents take the stairs, for example.

She added that improving parks alone is not enough. “The thing that we see that is the most likely to prevent someone from using a park is actually busy roads surrounding a park, also the number of entrances,” she explains. “So if you’re looking at the city, and you’re thinking about where to spend infrastructure dollars, just a park improvement alone isn’t necessarily going to increase use if it’s surrounded by a really busy road.”

Kollock-Wallace said she hopes whatever change comes to the neighborhood, it comes soon. “I understand that money has been allocated now to renovate [Betsy Head], and I’ll be happy to see that, because this community needs that park,” she says. “We need to allow our children to run around, we need to walk around, we need to sit and hold a conversation in the open air. I think it adds a level of conduciveness to the community that has not played the highest role in the past.”

“I go out of the community for a lot of things,” she adds. “But I’d like to go in the community for many more, but that’s not happening right now. Especially for open spaces.”

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