Through the development of numerous initiatives directed at transforming green spaces across the city, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) has improved the quality of life for New Yorkers. Due to her track record of studying green spaces and streetscapes, BEH investigator Gina Lovasi was invited by NYRP to join the planning team for an emerging effort: The Haven Project. The Haven Project aims to renovate a network of open spaces in the Mott Haven and Port Morris neighborhoods of the South Bronx, while simultaneously demonstrating measurable health and social outcomes resulting from an improved physical environment. Since the fall of 2014 Gina Lovasi, along with Lori Fingerhut, has led our engagement in this planning effort. Our role included conducting a rapid literature review tailored to the needs of the project (download the report). This literature review focused on informing strategies for redesigning public spaces to enhance opportunities for population health.
Community meetings and discussions within the planning team shaped the literature review sections and areas of emphasis. Our review focused first on three health-related outcomes of particular concern in Mott Haven and Port Morris: physical activity, clean air, and pedestrian safety. We reviewed the key drivers of these outcomes in the local physical environment, with a focus on leverage points that could support improvements in these outcomes. Next, our review examined three modifiable aspects of the local physical environment with potential relevance to health needs of the area residents: parks, trees, and pedestrian path enhancements. For each of these, we sought to describe the range of potential health impacts, and the multipliers that seem to maximize health benefits. Finally, we briefly discussed literature on the processes driving neighborhood change, and how process itself may be crucial to realizing behavioral health benefits.
As the public health partners in this project, our literature review emphasized design elements related to creating more health-supportive public spaces, though such spaces clearly can support social and economic goals as well. Our review has benefited from the insights of design planners and community members, and has brought to our attention some areas of misalignment in the questions addressed in the available evidence versus what would be most crucial to design decisions. For example, while we have previously pointed to the potential health benefits of larger versus smaller park areas using the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation’s definition for large park spaces, we have not explored directly what the threshold should be for defining such parks as large enough to maximize health benefits. We plan to continue the iterative process of building evidence and bringing that evidence to new audiences, experiences which feed into the ongoing realignment of our research questions going forward with the needs of communities and stakeholder organizations who safeguard health opportunities for all.