By Shirley Franklin
I remember when East Lake Meadows was one of Atlanta’s most violent neighborhoods. Today, high-quality, mixed-income housing has replaced decrepit apartments in East Lake. Crime is down and employment, income, school attendance and student achievement are up. It’s a flourishing community where people of all ages and different backgrounds choose to live.
The benefits of living in a safe neighborhood with good housing and outstanding schools come from a holistic approach to community revitalization. Why holistic? A community’s wellness results from the quality of education, recreational facilities, employment opportunities and health care of its residents.
That’s what happened in East Lake. Tom Cousins, an Atlanta-based developer and philanthropist, spearheaded an initiative to turn the neighborhood around, combining mixed-income housing, a cradle-to-college education pipeline and community services. Purpose Built Communities was then created to replicate the model nationally. To date, the Purpose Built model has been implemented in seven more communities nationwide.
Today, nearly one in 10 Americans lives in low-income neighborhoods with high crime rates, few jobs or decent, affordable housing options. There’s limited access to safe parks, recreational facilities or nutritious foods. It’s nearly impossible to be healthy in these environments.
Georgia shows how poor health can impact a state. The United Health Foundation ranked Georgia 38th in overall health in “America’s Health Rankings,” which include high rates of low birth-weight babies, obesity, diabetes and other issues prevalent among children in poverty. Keeping people healthy requires access to quality, affordable, mixed-income housing; excellent schools; safe streets, playgrounds, parks and recreational facilities; and grocery stores and farmers markets that sell healthy foods at reasonable prices.
A recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America looks at new ways to build cross-sector collaborations and create neighborhoods where everyone can be healthy. The report presents access to quality health care as a critical element in revitalizing neighborhoods and breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. It recommends a health-focused, holistic approach that expands access to high-quality early childhood education and broadens the mission of doctors and health care providers to go beyond medical treatment and help address the social, economic and psychological aspects of a healthy life. These recommendations, if applied holistically, will create healthier generations of Americans. The commission recommends integrating health-related goals into all community development efforts. It’s challenging, but it can be done.
As an eyewitness to East Lake’s success in Atlanta, and the growth of this model nationwide, I know it’s not a question of how we can do this but when we will make our nation’s health a true priority and do what we must to put the recommendations in the commission’s report to work.
Shirley Franklin, former Atlanta mayor, is CEO of Purpose Built Communities.