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Healthy 'Hoods: How do you build a healthy community?

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Healthy 'Hoods: How do you build a healthy community?

Picture of Eddie North-Hager
How do you build a healthy community?
Leimert Park Beat
Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The health of South Los Angeles suffers in part because much of this area was designed for the poor. The infrastructure itself plays a role.

Many of the problems we are facing today were built into the very structure of the Los Angeles area.

Today's environmental injustice was no accident in the Los Angeles area, according to Jennifer Wolch, dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley.

How did western L.A. County end up having 59 acres of park space per 1,000 people and South L.A. end up with 1.2?

Click on the map to find out the location of your local parks, farmers markets and community gardens.

In part, the 1904 zoning code, according to the "Parks and Park Funding in Los Angeles: An Equity Mapping Analysis."

It was the first ordinance to regulate where buiness and residences could locate. It protected West L.A. from undesirable land uses, such as industrial activities and high density housing, Wolch reports. In 1912 the city of Torrance developed a well-thought out plan house the city's workers, mainly Latinos, downwind of the city's industrial plants and their pollutants.

In addition to school segregation through the 1940s and racially restrictive housing covenants through the 1950s, parks were also historically segregated in Los Angeles.

Blacks could only swim in the municipal plunge on International Day, the day before the pool was cleaned and the water drained, according to "Healthy Parks, Schools, and Communities: Mapping Green Access and Equity" by Robert García and Aubrey White of City Project.

Bruce's Beach in Manhattan Beach was one of the few beaches blacks could enjoy in the the 1920s. By the ‘30s city officials forced them out and were left to the only other place for blacks to enjoy the ocean, the Inkwell at Pico Boulevard, according to the City Watch report.

With such a history, how can a neighborhood – especially one so dense and so park poor as South Los Angeles – encourage physical activity?

Healthy 'Hoods

By building healthy communities that have parks, schools, retail and housing within walking distance of each other – with good sidewalks and bike lanes – so people will be encouraged to use their feet or a bicycle.

By creating communities where people feel safe. Good sidewalks and good lighting make people feel safer walking around, even after dark. And these amenities also encourage people to walk more, according to the study, "Walking and Bicycling: An Evaluation of Environmental Audit Instruments
and the report, "Walkable Communities."

[Photo at right: After a 50 year absence, the Expo Line light rail train will return in 2010. With it comes new landscaping along a formerly desolate area of Jefferson and Exposition boulevards.]

"Applying public health criteria to land-use and urban design decisions could substantially improve the health and quality of life of the American people," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the study, "Creating a Healthy Environment: The Impact of the Built Environment on Public Health."

Walking a little more or having a park nearby could help shed just a few pounds. A few makes an impact – losing seven pounds helps reduce the risk of developing diabetes in high-risk patients by 60 percent. Diabetes is linked to obesity.

"If you make some changes you can feel safe walking to the corner store or the mall," says Anthony Crump, a policy analyst with the Community Health Councils in South Los Angeles. "If you have a bike lane and bike parking kids and adults will be more likely to use them."

Healthy 'Hoods

In the same way, infrastructure can encourage people to walk because there are shade trees, crosswalks and street furniture. People are more likely to ride bicycles when there are bike racks to park their bike and bike lanes that are clearly marked.

The Children's Nature Institute is attempting to deal with South L.A.'s urban legacy by enticing kids to go outside and enjoy the flora and the fauna in South Los Angeles.

[Photo at left: Ingold Park in View Park was recently improved with a walking trail and exercise equipment.]

"You have to get a lot out the space you have," says Michelle Rhone-Collins, executive director of the Children's Nature Institute in South L.A. "There are barriers that keep people from the pristine spaces. So how do you still continue to experience nature and access those benefits? With us, we are going to walk right outside of the door."

They take children on hikes right on the city streets and they inspect ant hills, spider webs and bean pods. They take what they can get and use it as a science lesson and a moment of wonder.

It seems intuitive that green space would be a somewhat healthful benefit. Still it's easy to underestimate how much of a difference it can make on your mind and body.

"There are demonstrable benefits to having open space as well as experiencing different species of birds and animals - even when people are not trained to know what they are looking at," says Travis Longcore, science director of the Urban Wildands Group and an associate professor at USC.

"Every study says yes it matters. People internalize elements of their environment."

But really how much of an effect can it be?

People in an office with plants score better on repetitive task and memory recall, Longcore says.

Imagine what a tree could do:

Physical activity relieves depression and anxiety, which also correlate to high blood pressure and heart attacks.

Outdoor play is critical to a child's cognitive development

• Views of nature are linked to the mitigation of attention deficit disorder.

"Studies show that when going outside for exercise, it is better for your psychological health and well being, as well as helping prevent obesity and diabetes," Rhone-Collins says.

But where can we put these trees?

In the third part of this series, we'll look at a green space that was saved from development in the South Los Angeles community of Leimert Park.


This project was made possible through the support of the USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowship program, funded by the California Endowment. and SoCal Connected partnered to produce this series.

Healthwise is a SoCal Connected series examining how community and environment can impact your health. Reports are made possible by a grant from The California Endowment.


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Read the studies and reports:

"Green Visions Plan for 21st Century Calfornia."

"Why Place and Race Matter."

"Healthy Parks, Schools and Communities: Mapping Green Access and Equity for the Los Angles Region."

"Obesity on the Rise."

"Parks and Park Funding in Los Angeles: An Equity Mapping Analysis."

"Diabetes on the Rise in Los Angeles County Adults."

"Walking and Bicycling: An Evaluation of Environmental Audit Instruments"

"Walkable Communities."

"Creating a Healthy Environment: The Impact of the Built Environment on Public Health.")