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Here’s how one city is transforming gritty neighborhoods into a network of parks

By shifting from asphalt and bleak streetscapes to green corridors and parks, the community will test the theories that living near nature can improve everything from happiness to fitness.

If you live in public housing in the South Bronx, you live near factories, bodegas, and a cloud of smog from thousands of cars commuting through on highway overpasses. You probably don't live near trees or a park.

But that's beginning to change as a massive new project redesigns vacant lots and barren streets in the neighborhood. The Haven Project plans to transform the area—and then work with researchers to measure exactly how much new green spaces improve public health.

Right now, it's one of the unhealthiest places in New York. "It has very high rates of asthma, diabetes, obesity, and pretty much every other poverty-related illness," says Deborah Marton, executive director of the New York Restoration Project, the nonprofit leading the redesign. The neighborhood is the poorest congressional district in the U.S.

By shifting from asphalt and bleak streetscapes to green corridors and parks, the community will test the theories that living near nature can improve everything from happiness to fitness. “Every day, more research comes out showing that the quality of one’s environment influences a huge range of quality of life metrics,” Marton says.

The group, working with partners from Columbia University researchers and design organizations like HealthxDesign, has used the latest research to plot out the new network of parks. Since studies say that groups of people only lose weight when they have access to large open spaces, one of the design’s priorities is helping get neighbors to nearby Randall’s Island.

A new bike and pedestrian path, the Randall’s Island Connector, will soon open, and part of the design involves leading people to it. “Part of the problem in the South Bronx is that the route to Randall’s Island is in some ways dangerous and confusing,” Marton says. The group will start by hanging a series of wayfinding signs through the neighborhood leading people to the park. The organization is partnering with a local hospital to survey patients when they come in, learning if people are using the signs, and if they exercised when they got to the island.

“Right away, we’ll start to collect information about the impacts of the work that we do,” she says. As the full design develops, the group will collect data about everything from the number of trees and bike paths to diabetes rates, biodiversity, and voter turnout.

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Since the air in the neighborhood is cleaner by the waterfront, one of the group’s other early projects is working to quickly build waterfront parks. As of now, there aren’t any. “Even though this is a waterfront community—about 100,000 people live within walking distance of the waterfront—there’s not a single place where anyone in the neighborhood can get to the waterfront,” Marton says.

Ultimately, the design will include a full network of tree-lined streets, new playgrounds, and new green spaces under highway overpasses. The plan will have a level of connectedness that goes far beyond typical city planning, because typical city planning is constrained by bureaucracy.

“Planners are hampered by the fact that cities are organized along agency lines,” says Marton. “It’s the Parks Department’s job to work on parks, but open spaces in the neighborhood might not by Parks Department property. Our city structure comes out of a 19th-century idea of core competencies, but now science tells us that’s not the best way to organize public spaces.”

Because New York Restoration Project is a nonprofit, it can move more easily across agency boundaries. It’s something the organization got experience with when it helped lead the Million Trees NYC project, planting trees across the city. “We realized there’s an immesnse power in that ability,” Marton says. “We can be much more flexible and dynamic in how we plan and also how we fund work.”

The group sees the project as a model for other cities, and since the project started, the City of Charlotte has been shadowing progress, planning something similar for itself.

“We feel that what we’re doing here is the way that cities should be built in the future and the way that people should think about public open space,” says Marton.

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