Measuring community health: a new research model puts the community in the driver's seat.


One of the most significant ways to transform health and grow local economies is by improving neighborhoods through a type of development called transit-oriented development: high-density housing that integrates commercial, retail, and green space within easy walking distance of public transportation.

Promoting such development was the impetus behind the 2014 launch of the Healthy Neighborhoods Equity Fund, a partnership between CLF and the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation. Over the past three years, the Fund has helped bring $18 million in financing to support six development projects in the Greater Boston area.

But, completing a new development is really just the beginning of the story. The true success of such targeted investment will come with the changes it brings to a community over time. That's where Vedette Gavin, CLF's Director of Research, comes in. "The reality is that the relationship between development and health is extremely complex," she says.

Development can affect income security, housing stability, neighborhood safety, population mobility, and culture--all of which influence health. Understanding how those factors interact is critical to measuring the effectiveness of transit-oriented development on neighborhoods and people. So in 2015, Gavin launched the Healthy Neighborhoods Study, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and in partnership with MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning Community Innovators Lab.

Traditional research on neighborhoods and health relies on academic experts analyzing big data sets over time--lifespans, ages, race, and health outcomes of residents, for example, and changes in average income and education. This data is valuable, but Gavin knows it's only part of the story. "It's my fundamental belief that if you're trying to know if a community is actually healthy, you go straight to the source--the residents," she says.

With her partners at MIT, Gavin identified nine communities in Eastern Massachusetts with struggling health and economies, and where high levels of new development are most likely--three of which have active projects invested in by the Healthy Neighborhoods Equity Fund. She then partnered with an organization in each community that is leading work around health, development, or environmental justice. Those groups in turn recruited 40 local researchers to conduct 400 on-the-ground interviews with fellow residents about what matters most for health...

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