November 13, 2019


New York University Kimmel Center

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Video: "The Best is Yet to Come: A Healthier Niagara Falls" Suzanne Nienaber's speaker slides

On November 13, 2019, NYHealth hosted its second annual Building Healthy Communities conference, “New Approaches to Neighborhood Health.” Speakers from local government, community-based organizations, and academic institutions discussed what communities are doing to improve health and wellbeing.

Keynote speaker Justin Garrett Moore, Executive Director of the New York City Public Design Commission, spoke about the City’s role in shaping the health of individuals and communities through inclusive and accessible urban design.

Mr. Moore spoke about how the design of communities impacts community health. To ensure better health outcomes and design for the “lived human experience,” four key urban design principles must be taken into consideration: place, equity, detail, and comfort. Mr. Moore noted that community participation in urban design planning is especially important, and that the City is exploring ways to create more opportunities for residents to organize and engage in the urban planning processes.

Following the keynote, NYHealth President and CEO, David Sandman, Ph.D., facilitated a Q&A discussion with Mr. Moore. Mr. Moore remarked that good design is often seen as a luxury, when in fact it is something that everyone deserves, as it is essential to good health. He also noted that people with the most time and resources are the ones whose ideas are heard during urban design planning processes. He acknowledged that the City’s role in facilitating community organizing needs to shift to ensure that more people are involved in community planning processes.

NYHealth Program Officer Nupur Chaudhury moderated the first panel, “Community-Led Action,” featuring speakers who are leading grassroots efforts to engage fellow residents and community partners in improving the health of their communities. Panelists were:

  • Dionne Grayman, Co-Founder, We Run Brownsville
  • Damaris Reyes, Executive Director, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES)
  • Sarah Obot, Co-Chair, Create a Healthier Niagara Falls Collaborative

Each panelist described her role in improving resident and community health in her community. We Run Brownsville, co-founded by two Brownsville residents, is a grassroots organization that aims to promote health and wellness among women of color living in Brownsville through a walk-to-run program. Ms. Grayman explained that the running group was initially started as a way for women to improve their health outcomes, and that the group now also serves a different but equally important purpose: cultivating leaders from within and creating a supportive and caring community that “runs on resistance.”

Ms. Reyes, Executive Director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) and a life-long Lower East Side resident, talked about how important it is for community organizations to provide residents with opportunities to organize. Ms. Reyes spoke in particular about her intensive community organizing efforts after Hurricane Sandy caused significant damage to the Lower East Side.

Sarah Obot, Co-chair of the Create a Healthier Niagara Falls Collaborative, spoke about the evolution of the Collaborative from an initiative made up of workgroups organized by the Mayor’s office to one collaborative run almost entirely by Niagara Falls residents. She explained that when the initiative first began, residents were not invited to participate in the workgroups and resisted neighborhood change because they were not involved in the planning. Ms. Obot reiterated Mr. Moore’s earlier words: that being patient and “moving at the speed of trust” was important—a central theme in resident-led community change.

Panelists acknowledged the reality that many residents are fatigued from community planning efforts, and that it can be difficult to encourage residents to get involved in organizing efforts when the end result of their efforts is often unclear. The panel concluded with a conversation about what allies and funders can do to support community-led action, including long-term investment in communities, being more open to taking risks, and trusting that residents know what they need in their communities and are able to spend grant funds wisely.

NYHealth Program Officer Bronwyn Starr moderated the second panel, “Using Data to Promote Social Cohesion.” Panelists were:

  • Jessica Athens, Ph.D., Policy & Research Officer, NYHealth
  • Suzanne Nienaber, Partnerships Director, Center for Active Design
  • Terry Huang, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Health Policy and Management; Director, Center for Systems and Community Design, CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy

Panelists discussed their efforts to use data and research to inform community-led improvement. Ms. Nienaber talked about Center for Active Design’s Assembly Civic Engagement Survey, the first study to examine specific community design features that influence civic life (i.e., level of participation in public life and informed local voting) using large-sample survey methods and visual experiments. The Center for Active Design’s research confirmed that civic life is directly connected to social cohesion.

Dr. Huang discussed his use of natural design in his evaluation of the City’s Community Parks Initiative, a large-scale investment in redesigning and revamping City parks with the greatest needs. Dr. Huang noted that he was interested in measuring not just physical activity before and after park improvements, but also changes in perceptions of quality of life among study participants.

Dr. Athens spoke about her work using big data to help inform community health, and developing the national County Health Rankings and the City Health Dashboard. Dr. Athens also discussed her ongoing research on urban blight (i.e., the amount of disrepair, vacant lots, and abandoned buildings in a community) and her future plans to contextualize that research.

Panelists discussed the potential of using data to improve civic life. They mentioned exciting new technology and tools, such as community-based participatory research, that they believe will help researchers do a better job of connecting the hard data to what is really happening on the ground. Panelists agreed that maintenance of public amenities is critically important to residents and must be prioritized and planned for when it comes to urban design.

Read biographies of the conference speakers.

Watch a video to learn more about how NYHealth has supported community-driven change in Niagara Falls:

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