Do Our Built Environment Redesigns Consider Health AND Equity?

Carly Hood, MPA, MPH

Population Health Service Fellow

Wisconsin Center for Health Equity
Health First Wisconsin
Wisconsin Division of Public Health

Madison, Wisconsin

Monday I attended the Population Health Sciences seminar “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design for Public Health” given by Ellen Dunham-Jones who is a Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the Georgia Tech School of Architecture. It was a great lecture with a wealth of insights on areas around the country that have undergone various methods of design to recover and invigorate the empty lots and strip malls blighting our nation. Such methods include everything from reinhabitation (repurposing of old buildings) and redevelopment (building new structures on old properties), to “regreening “or simply tearing things down to put in more space for trees, gardens and space to be active. (Archive coming soon!)

Somewhat counterintuitive and disturbing, I was surprised to learn that we have seen a dynamic shift in where poverty in our country exists, and today there are more poor people living in the suburbs than the cities (reinforced by this infographic).

This is in part the result of what’s known as the “drive til you qualify” phenomenon whereby if you want a shorter and cheaper commute, you have to be able to pay for it in home price (and vice versa). This lack of regulation on housing prices and affordability, as Professor Dunham-Jones pointed out, has led to uneven and unsustainable patterns in development as we see them today.

But it was as she shared pictures of a case study (one from her incredible database of 800 locales!) from my home state of Oregon that I got to thinking…not all suburbs are created equal. She was sharing changes made to a structure in a suburb of Portland called Lake Oswego which happens to have the greatest concentration of Portland-area homes worth more than $1 million. And so it struck me: Are the people in Lake Oswego the people most in need of retrofitting for the “public’s health?” Now I recognize that this is just one of many examples of a suburb that is reusing space for new purposes; some examples are found in impoverished communities, others in more well off areas. And Professor Dunham-Jones did share stories from both ends of the spectrum. But given that lower socioeconomic status has consistently been associated with poorer health outcomes (which holds across the income gradient), if one of the goals of “retrofitting suburbia” is to improve population health, wouldn’t we be more successful at achieving this goal if our efforts were more often targeted in areas with poor health, less community cohesion, and fewer options for safe shared space?  

There’s no doubt empty strip malls, large parking lots, and poorly designed suburban neighborhoods are not only eye-sores, but are contributing to our car-dependent and chronic-disease ridden country.

But should we be looking towards those with longest commutes, fewest parks, and/or highest rates of morbidity to consider such beneficial transformations? And even before we ask those questions, I’d explore just what may be occurring inside those communities that we can’t see from the outside…Kaid Benfield, Special Counsel for Urban Solutions at Natural Resources Defense Council, highlights, “As [suburban] properties have declined, so have their rents, making them affordable to small, often entrepreneurial businesses,” businesses often owned and frequented by inner-suburb immigrant populations. Says Benfield, “The risk is that, as we reshape these old properties with new buildings and concepts, the replacement properties will be much more valuable than their predecessors; indeed, that’s why new development is appealing to investors and how it is made possible.  Overall, that’s a good thing.  But small businesses either go under, unable to afford new rents, or relocate as a result. “ In housing policy, when an area is rezoned many cities now have inclusionary zoning policies e.g: “a percentage of units in a new development or a substantial rehabilitation that expands an existing building set aside affordable units in exchange for a bonus density. The goals of the program are to create mixed income neighborhoods; produce affordable housing for a diverse labor force; seek equitable growth of new residents; and increase homeownership opportunities for low and moderate income levels.” But that policy doesn’t necessarily translate to the rezoning of small, local businesses run by lower and middle class populations.

Furthermore, the potential negative implications of redesigning run-down suburbs don’t just apply to small business owners; development and the resulting risk of gentrification can hurt the workforce and overall economy of an entire region as is the case in DC where the free market is picking winners and losers by pricing much of DC’s workforce out of the area.
This can happen in cities and in suburbs. And—as my economics side must loudly add—that’s just capitalism functioning as it’s supposed to! Without a “check and balance” of some sort, that’s the way our system is meant to function.

Alas, the challenges remain—and professor Dunham-Jones spoke eloquently to these: How do we ensure beautifying old structures isn’t pushing out the very people who are making the only use of them? How do we even determine if in fact retrofitting efforts ARE having an impact on health? And finally, I’d push us to ask: are we getting at the roots of the problem? Increasingly more and more people across the country are spending less time using services, purchasing goods and/or enjoying public space.  America’s poor paying jobs that demand long hours, multiple shifts, and/or too much time in transit are squeezing our middle class. An extreme example, but one we could do well to learn a lesson from before it’s too late, is that of China’s ghost cities, captured here on CNN.

I see the benefits of retrofitting our suburban landscape, and through Professor Dunham-Jones’ lecture, have learned of the amazing structures and spaces erected, community built, economies revitalized and local business improved through such efforts. I recognize health is not the only goal in redeveloping our suburban landscape, and equity can’t be the sole factor in determining repurposing projects. But that’s the lens I wear. And for those most sick and in most in need of a louder voice, I can’t help but ask, “How do we decide fairly which space to retrofit?”