Complete Streets to Promote Physical Activity

Modified and reposted from the Plan4Health blog site:

Interested in designing ‘complete streets’ for your community but not sure where to start? Here’s a slideshow of Dangerously Incomplete Streets that provides visual examples on how to assess your current streets and intersections. Thanks to the Eastern Highlands Health District of the Connecticut Plan4Health coalition for sharing this link!

Image from Pixabay

Studies are showing the importance of complete streets for the benefit of community health by reducing the reliance on cars and making communities more walking and biking friendly. One study from Copenhagen showed that it’s six times more expensive to travel by car than by bicycle (there’s a short informative video that sums up the study). Many cities are now looking into increasing biking infrastructure as a way to lower car emissions and increase health benefits to those who ride. However, a major issue that’s stopping many citizens from biking is the lack of connections made between existing bike lanes. This issue is discussed in a recent article from The Washington Post: Why cycletrack networks should be the next great American transit project.

Communities still have a lot of work to do when it comes to providing active modes of transportation through complete streets. While this Complete Streets toolkit is designated for the Southeast Region, there are many innovative activities and resources that can be adapted for your locality. Plan4Health Nashua is currently working on a Complete Streets Project, as well as Plan4Health Summit County of Ohio. Interested in learning more about Plan4Health, visit their site and comment for more details!

Building Repairs May Lower Crime Rates: Is this even a Question?

Here’s an article I came across that discusses the deeper roots about crime within communities with struggling and/or decaying buildings. I think there are many obvious reasons such as long-term poverty, lack of political priority, as well as public and mental health issues that all combine to help determine crime rates in a city or even further into distinct neighborhoods. It only makes sense when one stops to consider how our built and natural environments affect us that we can then start to make some connections between crime rates and decrepit buildings- to me this is obvious.

Homes that have been foreclosed upon and boarded up usually signal that the neighborhood needs help, and typically what comes with that are some urban problems that may be stereotypical but often sadly play out in the real world. Boarded up homes don’t look good to outsiders or those within that community- it’s a constant visual reminder of distress, which only brings on more stress to those that are directly affected by having to witness these homes everyday. Not to mention the activity that can go on in these abandoned buildings- criminal matter, stray animals or simply a dry place for the homeless to sleep in- these buildings can often be hubs for attracting nuisances.

In the article, it talks about an ordinance that Philly used requiring that all abandoned homes have working windows and doors if the neighborhood is 80% inhabited, and thus houses cannot be boarded up. Think about it- most of these homes were in working condition and at least livable before they were vacated, so what’s the point in boarding up perfectly good homes? Naturally, to prevent people from going in. But Philly has taken these steps in efforts to decrease the negative perceptions within communities that have seen vacant homes pop up through parts of neighborhoods. How one perceives where they live impacts their health and productivity, and I’m glad that at least one city is taking this into consideration. A quick search also led me to The Vacant Property Coalition of Detroit. Taken directly from their site:

Michigan Community Resources provides The Vacant Property Coalition of Detroit as a platform to unite diverse residents and neighborhood-based organizations across the city. We equip them with the knowledge, tools and resources to address community concerns related to vacant property through education, advocacy and community-driven problem solving.

I’m glad to see there are a few places out there attempting to do some systemic work towards this issue and I’m sure there are more out there. If you know of any organizations or ventures out there that are working towards keeping housing usable rather than boarding up neighborhoods, join the conversation!

Equity at the Center of HIAs: An Emerging Planner’s Perspective

This post will be featured on APA’s Sustaining Places blog, so I wanted to share with my blog community here. Thanks for reading!

Today marks my third official week since beginning an internship with the American Planning Association at their Planning and Community Health (PCH) Center in Washington, D.C. Within these last two weeks I’ve been exposed to quite a whirlwind of information, events, conference calls, and meetings (including a few that had free food!). I have to say that I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to come to “work” where I get to learn about all the things I’m passionate about and research all the topics I’ve always wanted to investigate.

At PCH, there are several projects that I’m involved in, either directly or indirectly, and while there is lots of overlap amongst them, they each have their own unique focus! Many of the projects are still in the developing stages, which have allowed me to see where they have begun while simultaneously jumping in head first to drive them forward. These projects will promote webinars, fact-sheets, and toolkits that APA will share with fellow planners as well as the general public, which is part of their vision in leading research and education in the planning field.

One project, Health Impact Assessment’s Role in Planning, will analyze a targeted list of Health Impact Assessments (HIAs), their presence and effectiveness in the planning and public health fields, and address where they are headed in future planning strategies. Over the last 10 years, planning and public health have begun to collaborate, and there’s acceptance that these fields should in fact be working together. At the Planning and Community Health Center, we are working towards Health in All Policies (HIAP) by promoting public and community health strategies in planning, with HIAs being one tool.

A second project as part of Planning Tools for Health is producing tools to help public health and government officials, along with planners, in support of reaching healthier communities for all. So far, two fact sheets have been produced: Health into the Comprehensive Planning Process and Safe Routes to Parks. Be on the lookout within the next few months for the final fact sheet: Green Infrastructure for Community Health. Another project, Plan4Health, is a joint collaboration with the American Public Health Association and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can learn more about Plan4Health on their site, but in essence their goal is to foster “creative partnerships to build sustainable, cross-sector coalitions.”

This past week, I was able to attend the 3rd National HIA Meeting here in D.C. with fellow staff, where we could “choose our own adventure” and select sessions that aligned with our personal interests. The major theme throughout this conference was equity as part of all things considered health, and further, health planning. As a learning planning and policy student with a strong background in community organizing, I have always felt strongly towards the importance of effective community engagement as part of the planning and policy processes. For clarity purposes, the CDC Health Equity Guide states that “Health equity means that every person has an opportunity to achieve optimal health regardless of: the color of their skin, level of education, gender identity, sexual orientation, the job they have, the neighborhood they live in, and whether or not they have a disability” (p. 2) Through most of the sessions, equity, how to effectively include equity as a component in HIAs, and how to achieve equity in plans and policies was continuously reinforced.

Standing among so many professionals from various sectors, I was deeply moved by the belief that equity should always be part of the public health and/or planning process, and further mirrored in the policies that stem from these fields. It was a refreshing reminder to hear from the diverse and overwhelmingly dedicated speakers that we should always be striving to effectively engage within our communities that will be affected by the plans and policies produced. Community engagement cannot simply be hosting a public meeting, counting the attendees and checking it off as done.  Equity is about making sure that throughout the planning process—not just the engagement piece, but the entire start to finish—those directly affected by the plan are in “the driver’s seat”, as so eloquently put by Lead Organizer of ISAIAH Phyllis Hill. We all were left reinvigorated to continue our work with more passion and a greater commitment to equity and, though we may be in different sectors, are all still committed to the belief that zip codes should never determine a person’s health.

While at the conference, I was able to meet with many key partners that are working with APA to propel the Health in all Policies movement forward, as well as the use of HIAs in the planning process. Senior Associate Ruth Lindberg of The PEW Charitable Trusts met with members of PCH to discuss the summary report of HIAs that will be released this fall. Rachel Banner, Program Manager at National Recreation and Park Association, was also another collaborator present at the conference, who recently spoke at an APA directed webinar about Safe Routes to Parks. Many coalition members of Plan4Health were present throughout the various breakout sessions, as well as authors of the various HIAs that APA is researching. Besides planners, sessions were filled with leaders from public health, environmental agencies, sustainability departments as well as an array of epidemiologists, policy writers and analysts, elected officials from local, state and federal levels, community organizers, and non-profit leaders.

In closing, wise words were spoken by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Senior Program Officer Pamela Russo, “Multiple sectors need to work together to make health and well-being a national priority.” Rebecca Morley, Director of Health Impact Project, reminded all of us the importance of engagement, empowerment, and equity, and that we all need to be doing more to support more community-driven HIAs rather just community-engaged HIAs.

All of us at PCH were honored to take part in The National HIA Meeting and we are looking forward to attending next year. If you would like more information about any of the projects mentioned, please visit APA’s Planning and Community Health Center site.

Mindfulness Mondays 3/23: On Change and its Many Facets

Today, I tried out a new Mindfulness App recommended on Mindful.org. I was skeptical at first but after reading the article and noticed one of them I’ve used before, I decided it was valuable to share. I enjoyed the criticisms it gave on the second app Calm, which I’ve used before but haven’t in a while (mainly because of the length of the 7 meditations and its tone). The first one sounded much more promising than the third, so I checked it out. Stop, Breathe & Think is offered on iPhones, Androids, and the computer- and the best part is you can update your account through all three and it will show up in real-time! I loved how it only takes a minute (or less) to check-in with your current emotional and physical state (5 options are given). Then after checking in, a few meditations are offered with varying time sequences, all relevant to the emotional and physical state you entered. There is a substantial list of meditations offered that you can choose from in your account, as well as check your progress in an easy and readable display format.

Front page of the app Stop, Breathe & Think.

Front page of the app Stop, Breathe & Think.

After my check-in, where I identified most of my emotions were related to feeling anxious and worried, I decided to try the recommended 6 minute meditation: Relax, Ground and Clear. I sat on the couch in my department building and was able to successfully complete the meditation without interruption until the last 30 seconds. This sequence provided some time to sit with my current emotional state, recognize how grounded I am to the Earth through my seat, and then envision myself on the top of a mountain and feel my grounded footing at its peak. Since I then had more time than I originally thought, I gave another sequence a try from the list of offered meditations: Change. I didn’t know what this one would entail but I thought the idea was appropriate. Change was a bit random since it was very philosophical on the subjects mentioned (the Earth changing over time, cells in the body changing). However, when it then prompted me to come back to my body and feel myself in the seat, I saw that it had successfully gotten me to think about these changes.

Though the topics were very philosophical, the app did just what it says: Stop, Breathe & Think. Despite the topics within the matter of change, they still were examples of kinds of change, even if I thought they were random or too theoretical. Both sequences got me to stop in my day, breathe through the sequence, and think about what the sequence prompted! Furthermore, after the sequence I was able to reflect upon my emotional and physical state in response to the meditation. Some mindfulness apps do a lot of promising and then you’re left dissatisfied at the end of using the technology. Stop, Breathe & Think gave everything it promises in its name!

On the topic of change, it’s the first day back in school after a week of Spring Break, so I’m a little out of my routine. Not to mention the season has changed officially to Spring! This unfortunately has brought weather changes, allergies, unpleasant bodily responses, and many more deadlines approaching! Over break I took a two-day vacation with my boyfriend and another couple to Niagara Falls, Ontario. It was gorgeous and just plain humbling. I allowed myself throughout the trip to surrender to my routines and also to loosen from them. I was able to be social with friends and take time to savor with my boyfriend with hardly any distractions (we couldn’t use our phones and barely looked at our emails). This was pure bliss. The life of living simply, without the many bounded strings we have to maintain to others or the responsibilities (big and small) that we chip away at daily, was extremely refreshing. Coming back to my regular life as a graduate student, having to read the many emails I had ignored, make necessary phone calls, tend to animals and bills, and just simply THINK about the many things I think about in a day has been overwhelming.

Photo from the observatory deck (it was dark but I like the edging on this)

Photo from the observatory deck (it was dark but I like the edging on this)

Going on spontaneous or even planned trips has always left me in a state of shock once they’re through. It’s like you’re a bit sad that reality can’t make accommodations to make living life a bit more simple- less chaotic, less inter-webbed, less noisy, less busy. I’ve never handled change well, and so I thought today’s guided meditation could be helpful. Despite the many thoughts that arose in my brain throughout that sequence, one repeating thought has stuck with me. I can’t run from change, and neither can anyone else. Change is the ebb and flow in our daily lives, it’s always going to be there. So the fact that I was able to work the first part of break, have a vacation, and now am back at school is part of it. In a month it will be the busiest time of the semester during finals, and then a few days afterward it will be all over. Noise to Quiet. Madness to Serenity. It’s part of change, which is a constant feature of life. And after today’s change of mindfulness app usage, I’m motivated to meditate in the future on the topic of change, and just see how my responses to it can change over time.

Mindfulness Check-In 3/2: Loud Thoughts and Meditation Bells

Sometimes your thoughts actually just sound like LOUD NOISES!

yell

Sometimes this is how you want to get those thoughts out! But you can’t…

Last Wednesday, and then in-and-out since, I’ve been experiencing moments (or a majority of the day) where all of my thoughts seem extremely LOUD, URGENT, EXPRESSIVE, FAST-MOVING, EMOTIONAL, and if I don’t catch myself in time, those thoughts then either turn into actions or words in reality. It sometimes feels like there are 3 different heavy metal bands playing 3 different songs at once, all songs including double bass drumming and loud screaming! Naturally, this can alter some moments and how people see you in that moment in time. So how do you manage to not let your thoughts come out in a manner that is uninviting and sometimes quite scary? You stop for a 1/2 second and just notice, without reaction, the thought(s), and then, notice how it makes you feel and how you may want to respond.

This morning, after I reflected on this internal energy that I’ve experienced over the last week, which is still somewhat present today, I was able to meditate for the first time with my therapist. His specialty is in meditation and mindfulness practice and though I’ve been seeing him since the beginning of September, this is the first time we’ve practiced together, in a session. He actually has one of those little metal meditation bells that look like this:

Photo credit: Zengroupon.com

Well I’m going to spare you the 10-minute recap and just get to what I really wanted to share. Those loud thoughts do mean something, but just because the thoughts are loud, doesn’t mean so do our actions (or reactions). I expressed how often when I practice and I’m noticing, I typically tell myself in my brain, “Thinking about writing a blog post” or “Wondering about my Professor’s email”. You see, that’s just too much text already- too much of the story I’m trying to capture and develop. My therapist led me through the meditation and told me that when a thought or worry comes up, to just repeat in my head “Thinking, thinking, thinking” or “Worry, worry worry”. He explained that by practicing that in the moment, it helps to simplify all of what’s attached to the thought in my brain, that story that I’m ultimately creating and further developing when I think to myself “Thinking about this and that, etc.” By just boiling down the details of the thought or feeling to their most simple state, the act of thinking or worry or anxiety or boredom (you get the idea), we help to simplify the brain and come to terms with those thoughts easier, and thus can choose further how we would like to respond to those more basic thoughts or emotions.

So all in all, you may want to yell out your thought or you may see yourself getting really wrapped up in the creation and re-telling of the story that means so much to you. When you do, stop and notice. Repeat to yourself (or practice getting there) the word that is truly the essence of that thought or feeling- just one word!!! Simplify all those loud thoughts and really see them for what they are, thoughts. Fro there you can then choose the path for best approach.

Happy Monday y’all!

Defensive Architecture: A Crossroads of Space, Social Power and Law

“A space without social (and legal) meaning is simply a location…much of social space represents a materialization of power, and much of law consists in highly significant and specialized descriptions and prescriptions of the same power.” (Blomley, xix)

It’s becoming more and more apparent in cities of today that spaces, both natural and built, are being re-imagined to serve purposes other than encouraging the social gathering of people. What is even more striking is that city officials and hired architects and planners are then taking these revised ideas of social places and actually creating them. As I read the stories popping up over the internet of places where ‘defensive architecture’ is utilized as a way to discourage loitering and homeless inhabitants, I can’t help but think about the inherent injustice within this ideology and construction. Not to mention that these places which once were used by humans for a multitude of purposes, along with the many unintended uses that arose, will now significantly be lessened. The most popular example right now is the latest installation of metal spikes on the grounds in front of a flat in London, where homeless dwellers would typically take up residence for resting and sleeping.

Photo Credit: Metal studs outside private flats on Southwark Bridge Road, London. Photograph: Guy Corbishley/Demotix/Corbis

This is happening all over the world- everyday there are spaces in our cities that are being redesigned with the intention to make some sort of statement. That’s the key point here- What statement? Because we’re being exposed to so much on a daily basis, we experience a sense of numbing to the issues that seem more routine, almost normalized (this is the environmental psychology). We all know that what may sound and look great on paper does not always work to our best intentions in reality. Building up a downtown center with high-rises, parking lots, and no public spaces sounded great for business but not-so-much for the people that make those businesses run. So where is the consideration for the fellow human when it’s time to develop an idea to reduce the presence of homeless people or loiterers? Homeless people, loitering teens and adults, these are still people. Why is the idea to remove them, extinguish them, make them appear less as if they aren’t even there? The quote at the beginning of the post has stuck with me since I read it over a month ago, and I thought fit with this issue of environmental psychology and defensive architecture. Spaces are not just empty, and how they are designed is not done blindly but with intention and have deeper meanings and implications than what may seem apparent. Every space and place, rich and lush or struggling and dicrepit, has inherent social, political and legal meaning. How that space is managed and utilized, how it’s perceived, establishes and reinforces its value- both in monetary but also in socio-political. The law and the policies that are often validated by law, are all wrapped up by the enveloping blanket of power, which can then choose to share warmth with those of certain social powers while leaving the less socially valuable out in the cold.

Alex Andreou shares:

“Defensive architecture is revealing on a number of levels, because it is not the product of accident or thoughtlessness, but a thought process. It is a sort of unkindness that is considered, designed, approved, funded and made real with the explicit motive to exclude and harass. It reveals how corporate hygiene has overridden human considerations, especially in retail districts. It is a symptom of the clash of private and public, of necessity and property.”

As a mindful planner, my first thought is that instead of repeating our past when it comes to the redesigning of cities and public spaces within them, we must instead approach the situation from a place of compassion and try to see the many problems that are intertwined so tight. When we think of a city and choose to see it as dirty and nearly dead, we’re only seeing it through a myopic lens, and we’re choosing to refuse the good qualities and value that are also present. Sometimes you have to think a bit harder or look from a different angle. Rather than seeing a bus stop as just a place where bums sleep, we need to see the bigger picture and consider the other uses and roles that this bus stop serves. For instance, it’s a bus stop, so it’s useful to those people that take the bus. Since often times people arrive earlier to wait for the bus, there is usually a lag period of time where other people will walk by or stop to rest and/or wait at the stop, and can often be a time where conversations and news are exchanged. Also, if the bus stop has a roof, it serves as a weather shelter for not just bus-users but also those who are homeless. Some bus stops are revitalized to display art, offer Wi-Fi, or just share information. There are many purposes that a bus stop serves and if we only choose to look at one problem with the stop, which is a place but also has significant effects on the many humans that use this stop, than we are being selectively ignorant to the social and political implications. If instead we approach the “homelessness issue” from a place of compassion- instead of attempting to oust the problem as our first reaction, we can instead think of the many possible approaches and attempt to offer solutions that are not only realistic but also more just. Planners, architects, designers, officials, anyone in a position of social power, needs to consider the repercussions and actual human lives that are affected by these less-than-mindful designs. It’s not about the place, it’s about the people. I believe that when we begin to lose the real meaning of why we build and create the places we do, then we lose our connections and our ability to empathize with other humans lessens.

Mindfulness Check-In 2/23: Some Remedies for a case of the Work Mondays

Courtesy of mindful.org

I don’t want to talk at you, but just provide some tips for how to not just start The Monday, but also to progress through The Monday. I know for me on this Monday, though I woke up in an exceptionally pleasant mood, I was hurting from my workload yesterday. I spent almost the entire day (besides taking breaks to cook or prepare food) reading on the computer and then drawing a map for a class project by hand- I’m very proud of it. Though I kept taking breaks and reminding myself to stretch and sit mindfully, my neck and shoulders are still sore from hunching and being stuck in certain positions when I was drawing. So today, knowing it’s the official start of the work week for many I thought I would pass along this neat infographic I found on mindful.org– definitely read the post!

Often times when we enter the workplace, we’re all coming from our own whirlwind of adventures/stresses/tasks from the weekend. It’s like a crock pot that you fill with everything in your fridge, but only it’s people’s lives and emotions that putting in a place to all work “together”. It can be a bit messy or create some tensions that may start to toll on you or others throughout the day. This infographic is a nice way to think about trying a different approach when you find yourself or another coworker at work struggling. We’re all under our own pressures, so why not do your part in practicing self-care and mindfulness at work? You may even reach out to another coworker and help them shed some positivity on their day and workload too! The ending of the article references a quote that tells of how the mind manages emotions based on what the person chooses to focus on, and how they focus on it:

Think of the mind’s eye as a flashlight. This flashlight can always search for something positive or negative. The secret is being able to control that flashlight—to look for the opportunity and the positive. When you do that, you’re playing to win. You’re able to focus on the right things and maintain that positive self.

And keep in mind that a leader not only has to focus her mind’s eye, but help others focus their minds’ eyes as well.

What are you going to use your flashlight for? What are some things you do throughout the day or work week to stay focused, mindful, or positive?

Lastly, here’s a great 6 minute video from Adriene to do yoga at your desk- a short but energizing break!

Innovative Thoughts from Aaron Renn

“We don’t have a seed problem, we have a soil problem.” – Aaron Renn

Phew! I have been super busy with lots of researching and not enough reporting. I am currently working on a few projects to eventually post more resources, but today’s post will just be to share some insight to other planners and community developers/engagers out there. This past week I watched a video that featured Aaron Renn, speaking in Louisville, Kentucky at Governing Magazine’s Summit on Performance and Innovation. Here’s his video: The Evolving City.

Aaron Renn is an opinion-leading urban affairs analyst, entrepreneur, speaker and writer. After a 15-year career in management and IT consulting at Accenture, he created the urban planning website, The Urbanophile, and is also the founder and CEO of Telestrian, a data analysis platform that provides powerful data mining and visualization capabilities. Renn’s writings have also appeared in publications such as Forbes,The New York Times and City Journal. – Courtesy of governing.com

Basically, he’s awesome! I follow his posts on Urbanophile, and he has a great e-book recently published (I want to read it), “The Urban State of Mind”. His posts are always relevant and analytical, all with an honest, realist approach. If I could meet him I would- he’s my inspiration as a future planner and city policy analyst. I recommend checking out his site, along with Governing Magazine if you’re especially interested in policies and politics related to localities and states.

His talk is based on innovation and evolution of what innovation means in a city and for its people. Innovation is necessary for planners as well, and just how cities are changing, so do the planners and the systems that planners have to work within. How we as planners and city officials think of our cities determines a lot of how we’ll work in them, and sometimes we need to adjust our thoughts to be more inclusive or really hone in on just what makes a city (like a brand) and make whatever that is “work” for it. I took some notes from his video, and I hope you will watch (or at least listen to the video).

  • There’s a distinct difference between internal consultants versus external consultants. This usually is related to power and the tyrannical structure within a company/firm.
  • Consultants stand behind a veil of ignorance when it comes to their own status in their organization, which can affect how they present an idea depending on who they’re presenting it to.
  • “We don’t have a seed problem, we have a soil problem”. (Think about it. Often the ideas (seeds) people have are great, but whether they take off or not is usually dependent on the environment they’re brought to (soil).)
  • We need to create a culture of innovation all the way down to the beginning of the organization- even the higher ups need to be accountable, knowing that an idea came from that company, regardless of where it began.
  • Cultural Resonance: Honor the essence of the place, distill it down, then inject it into everything we do in that community.