The Stamford, Connecticut Westside Project supports activity, but builds trust before amenities.
Redeveloping blighted Mill River Park has been the dream of several Stamford mayors. The waterway in the city’s industrial Westside is littered with refuse, its dam clogged by old mattresses and other debris. City planners envisioned building a path for walking and biking that would provide space for recreation and exercise, as well as serving midtown residents commuting to local businesses. But when they asked Westside community members what they thought would improve neighborhood conditions, residents gave some unexpected answers. Because they felt earlier city developments had failed them, residents were wary of any plan for building new facilities.
Instead, they said they wanted motivation and social support to help them get fit.
Not put off by resident feedback, planners and health department officials rerouted their original plan and focused first on rebuilding trust. They heeded neighborhood leaders’ initial requests to utilize existing community assets to promote physical activity and now have the foundation for future efforts to improve the built environment with community buy in.
Stamford’s Westside is an inner-city community in an industrial area of the city. Half of the population of approximately 20,000 is African American, while 30% are Hispanic and 20% White or other. The Mill River Park is a largely neglected strip of parkland that creates both a physical and psychological barrier between the Westside and adjacent neighborhoods, including the more affluent midtown area.
With an eye toward making the Mill River Park and the adjacent greenway more pedestrian-and bicycle-friendly, the mayor joined with the local health department, the director of planning, and consultants to explore options for improving the area. Early on, the group decided to survey local residents to find out whether or not they used the park and what improvements might reduce the barriers to using it for activity. The health department hired a consultant to adapt the World Health Organization’s International Physical Activity Questionnaire (IPAQ) to survey Westside res- idents. After conducting the telephone survey, the group had responses from 600 individuals. The group decided to present their findings to community residents as well as housing project tenant councils, business people, local political representatives, church and community leaders, and health department employees who lived in the Westside. People “were strongly impressed by the data. It was the most powerful thing they’d seen about their community and people were really moved by it,” according to Anthony Iton, the project’s principal advisor.
In addition to resident attitudes, the data showed extremely low levels of physical activity among residents. This came as no surprise. Most unforeseen however, was the survey’s finding that residents preferred leadership and encouragement more than physical improvements to the area. For the most part residents felt safe in their neighborhood, believed that the quality of sidewalks were good and that amenities and interesting destinations were within walking distance from respondents’ homes. “We had biased perspectives,” said Iton. “When we saw that self-described rates of physical activity were low, we assumed that we could reverse that by enhancing the built environment. Our idea was that we’d say, ‘What kind of equipment do you want? Weights? Stretching posts?’ But we learned that it wasn’t because of perceptions of crime, the quality of the sidewalks or amenities—these things were not the problems. What we discovered hit us like a ton of bricks,” said Iton. “The contentious history of urban renewal in the 70’s had produced a current of distrust of city redevelopment initiatives among many long-term residents of the Westside,” he said. Because the residents had experienced “systematic removal under the auspices of urban renewal...worse than gentrification...knocking down homes, destroying communities and replacing them with corporate office towers, a large shopping mall and freeway off-ramps,” they were more than wary of any proposed development projects.
For community residents it was more about working with one another to motivate change within individuals. “We found that the community members wanted motivation and social support for getting active. This was a real awakening,” said Iton.
Residents identified the need for more programming and leadership in their own community as essential ingredients to promote physical activity. So the city responded by establishing two separate community- based committees. First, the programming committee focused on enhancing programs for residents and supporting existing Westside institutions. In just one example, the city has demonstrated good faith by making tangible investments in the physical activity programming at Yerwood Center, a centrally located Westside community center.
The goal of the second committee is to solicit community feedback on proposed design changes to the Mill River Park and ultimately work with and change the built environment to support new programming and the community. The efforts of the second committee have
been delayed, however, because the number of simultaneous redevelopment projects that the city is implementing has slowed the rate at which changes to the park will be funded.
The people: Diverse Partners Collaborate to Build Healthy Environments
Once the city officials—the mayor, the local healthdepartment, the director of planning, and consultants—involved residents, a wide range of perspectives informed decision-making about Westside redevelopment. These included resident senior citizens, housing facilities tenant councils, community leaders, city workers who live on the Westside, the local health officer, health educators, a health inspector, and representatives from the social services department. The health department played an instrumental role in engaging the community initially, through collecting and sharing local data. Later, the department continued its support by stepping back and providing money to support community-initiated requests for more programming. As Iton explained, “A lot of health departments would find it difficult to give up ownership, but our conclusion was that it was best to step back and give a few thousand dollars to build trust.”
The Results: Healthy Change in Local Environments
According to Iton, the most significant change in the Westside is “the renewed sense of trust that has been fostered through this process.” The public health department now understands much better the community’s perspectives on health and nutrition. Because the project is still underway (with the second committee still not yet launched into action) the full impact of these efforts remains to be seen. Repeat survey assessments were planned for Summer 2004. Meanwhile, the programming committee’s organizing efforts are already paying off. The local YMCA has also donated funds to support programming in conjunction with the Mill River Park project. And a group of ladies (dressed in bright pink) regularly walk around the Mill River corridor cleaning up the park while exercising and educating participants about the history of the river and parkway.
Research has demonstrated the powerful impact of peer encouragement on maintaining regular exercise. Interventions like walking groups that build social support for activity have been shown to increase physical activity, strength and flexibility and decrease body fat.1 And if the mayors’ dreams come true, there may one day be a walking and biking path along the entire Mill River. This could also help residents keep active. Studies have shown that convenient access to walking paths and local facilities have been associated with increased physical activity.2,3 Convenient access and social support may just be the winning combination that keeps residents moving.
As the link between the built environment and health becomes clearer, the role of public health departments in promoting health by developing healthier communities will become increasingly instrumental. The Role for Local Public Health Agencies in Land Use Planning and Community Design outlines several important ways that public health agencies can influence the building of healthy communities, including facilitation of community dialogue, provision of epidemiological data and “use of the public health process to mobilize the community and raise community awareness.”4 Public Health departments have a critical role in supporting effective community interventions to increase physical activity, bridging the communication gap between community members and other government agencies, and laying a foundation for efforts to promote health by transforming the built environment.
Wisdom from Experience:
According to Iton, “Community members appreciate locally relevant data. They don’t want the generic data about how kids are getting fat; they want to know about their own community. We have all these assumptions and forget about the basic needs of the community.” For those dedicated to changing the built environment, Iton advises, “Remember, the time scale of changes to the built environment is years, not weeks or months. Health and planning departments should look at community participation differently to involve community members at the earliest stages, not once plans have already been drawn up.” Perhaps the most powerful lesson that Iton has learned from the process is one about engaging the community and listening: “Prepare to give up ownership in favor of building trust because ultimately, if you want to see behavior change it has to come from within and you can’t impose it on people. If there is the slightest sense of imposition, it will be resisted. Focus on the community participatory process and understanding the community as fully as possible beforehand. Whatever structure or physical improvements you are planning to build is almost irrelevant. If people have mistrust and don’t believe in the process, then it will fail—whatever you’re trying to sell.”
While current efforts are focused on enhancing Westside community resources already in place, city officials still hope to clean up Mill River Park. They hope to build on the foundation of trust now being established so down the road they can count on local support for future redevelopment efforts. Meanwhile the city is in the process of redeveloping a couple of old properties, including one that burned down. The planning committee has not yet received funding to implement proposed changes, and the funding for the repeat assessments may be precarious. However, the cooperative efforts of Stamford officials and residents bode well for upcoming projects.
Anthony Iton MD, JD, MPH
Former County Health Officer, Stamford, CT Principal Advisor to the Project
- Recommendations to Increase Physical Activity in Communities. Task Force on Community Preventive Services, Am J Prev Med. 2002;22(4S)67-73
- Humpel N, Owen N, Leslie E. Environmental Factors Associated with Adults’ Participation in Physical Activity. Am J Prev Med. 2002;22(3):188-196.
- Addy CL, et al. Associations of Perceived Social and Physical Environment with Physical Activity and Walking Behavior. Am J Pub Health. 2004;94(3): 440-443
- The Role of Public Health Agencies in Land Use Planning and Community Design. National Association of County and City Health Officials.