Cristina’s walk- Built environments and childhood health

Cristina lives in an impoverished neighborhood near Houston’s downtown. Every day, Cristina’s first challenge is to get to school. The half-mile route is full of hazards. It includes a wide range of sidewalk conditions – none, broken, decent, and one with no barrier from the morning traffic zooming by. On one block the shops are open. On the next block, they’re empty. Windows are broken, people are sleeping in the doorway of one, and some guys are standing near the entry of another empty business. Cristina has to navigate all this and more before she ever makes it to her school’s front door.

Why tell this tale? To illustrate the interplay between places and people. Simple behaviors (walking to school) are fraught with danger in a poverty-stricken urban environment. Layer on issues like 1) decaying housing stock, 2) lack of access to stores that sell healthy foods, and 3) an overabundance of those that sell cheap processed snacks, and the costs for children, not least in terms of risk for chronic diseases like childhood obesity and asthma, are unconscionable.

How do we deal with this connection between people and place?

What we believe at Local Initiatives Support Coalition (LISC) is that comprehensive community development is part of the answer. Comprehensive community development is an approach to neighborhood revitalization that goes beyond than traditional community development concerns such as built environments. It includes investments in affordable housing, commercial property and community centers, but it also looks more expansively at ways to provide safe streets, safe outdoor places for families to engage in physical activity, and easier access to healthy foods.  In Houston and other urban centers nationwide, LISC programmatically connects local organizations and community leaders with one another. The goal is to ensure that residents in a given neighborhood have access to resources (stores, parks, community gardens) that make healthy choices easy.

Ensuring people and place prosper and thrive

Here’s how comprehensive community development works in practice: To help improve the health environment in specific neighborhoods, we provide grants to community-based nonprofits that care about creating a healthy community. We then encourage networking among them, so that they coordinate their efforts for maximum impact. We also make direct investments in built environment that support positive health outcomes. In Houston, for instance, LISC invested in improving a high school sports field, which neighborhood families then used in the evenings.

Does this approach make a difference? Emerging evidence says yes. One 2013 study comparing four Kansas City neighborhoods – two where LISC works and two comparison neighborhoods—found a positive correlation between a comprehensive community development and positive health outcomes.

Healthy people and healthy neighborhoods don’t happen accidentally. With so many neighborhoods struggling with poverty and costly, preventable diseases like obesity, it’s time for community developers to align more strategically and more intentionally with the public health community.  A holistic approach focused on comprehensive community development is where we will see lasting improvements for Cristina and other low-income children nationwide.

Amanda Timm is executive director of Houston LISC . Amanda orchestrated Houston LISC’s strategic shift to a comprehensive approach for community development.  The implementation of this new strategy has led to the local launch of the Great Opportunities (GO) Neighborhoods Program and the inclusion of Houston as an expansion site for the Financial Opportunity Centers by National LISC.