In 2004, I was at a conference on Gross National Happiness Indicators taking place in Canada. It’s a way to measure wealth in a nation that includes the wellbeing of people, communities and planet. At the time, I was not feeling very upbeat about such innovation becoming reality in the U.S. The Canadian participants shared in their conversations with me that they believed that the hope for the future in the United States lay with the cities. It seems cities are still leading the way, today.
Here are three recent examples of cities implementing solutions for youthful employment, medical services to low income patients, and growing local food.
In Nashville, about 3,000 of its homeless population are under 24 years of age with around 30% of those under 18 years of age being impacted by youth poverty. Between 2011 and 2015 there were close to 17,000 violent incidents among people ages 25 years old or younger. Sixty-four percent of youth homicides in 2015 were black youth.
The city has adopted a multi-level approach to the problem of youth poverty and violence: meaningful youth engagement, health awareness and access, restorative justice and diversion, safe environment, education, and jobs and employment opportunities. Opportunity Now is the fruit of its efforts to build out that last pillar. The organization gives local students and their peers the guidance and connection they need to become self-sufficient. Local businesses have provided around 8,000 opportunities to date and more companies are jumping on board.
Job listings are broken up into three categories:
• Internships that place 14 to 18 years-olds for six weeks during the summer in local companies or community organizations to gain experience.
• Summer Plus offers entry-level positions for high school graduates
• Work Now has job listings for anyone out of high school.
All the positions are paid and most are part time. They range from $8 an hour for youngest workers to market rate for those with a little more experience. The organization also links the young employees with local nonprofits that can share lessons on financial education.
A study done by the Reserve Bank of Boston on a similar program there found that minority youth following their participation showed greater interest in enrolling in an academic institutions especially among those on the younger end of the spectrum.
An obvious but ignored approach to improving the health of low income residents is happening in Pensacola, Florida. They are fixing the problems that make people sick in the first place– substandard housing, unhealthy food and lack of opportunity. Apparently, there is something known as the ZIP code effect, which is a reference to a series of studies showing that one’s address has a far greater impact on health and life expectancy than genetic risk or the quality or accessibility of medical treatment. This appears to be true even for individual behaviors like diet or exercise patterns.
In Pensacola neighborhood ZIP code 32505, which has a high inequity score according to the Urban Institute, the good health effort began with a playground for kids. The Escambia Community Health Clinic staff did something that is not often done. They attended neighborhood gatherings and asked community members what they wanted. Surprisingly, the paramount concern was for a real playground for the kids. To make that happen, the Clinic and volunteers applied for grant from a women’s charity, a local chapter of Impact 100, which awarded them $ 106, 000 to build the playground.
The playground triggered a series of events other agencies and organizations.The school district offered to maintain the playground; the clinic began to staff the school for easier access by the children; and managers of a federally subsidized housing project partnered with the clinic on series of wellness initiatives to improve living conditions, offer job training and address issues of food insecurity. The neighborhood is also becoming a residency site for obstetrics, internal medicine and pediatrics. Finally, the clinic received more than $8 million from federal funds and local investment to build a new clinic, community center, teaching center and garden in what is now an abandoned elementary school.
The Dudley neighborhood had been devastated in the 80’s by disinvestment and white flight of the 60’s and 70’s. Residents were displaced by urban renewal programs and highway building, which took homes and businesses. More than one-third of the land was vacant and gentrification was in the works to transform the area into hotels and offices serving downtown Boston. But, the residents and community organizations resisted.
The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) brought together residents to develop their own comprehensive plan to revitalize their community. They successfully pushed Boston to adopt the plan and to give DSNI the power of eminent domain over a 60-acre parcel in the core of the Dudley neighborhood, known as the Dudley Triangle. They established their own community land trust to take ownership over the vacant land and develop it.
Now, almost 30 years later, DSNI boasts the development of more than 400 permanently affordable new homes and rehabilitation of more than 500 homes. The group has also developed parks and gardens, a town common, a community center, a charter school—and the community greenhouse. The Food Project earns enough money from selling produce that is grown in half of the space to pay much of the operating costs, and it allows them to offer year-round growing in the other half to local residents and organizations.
However, city zoning laws made it difficult to do commercial farming within the city limits. Community members organized and successfully advocated for reform. Last July, ground was broken for the Garrison-Trotter Farm in Roxbury, the first urban farm permitted under the new ordinance. The land will be owned in perpetuity by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s community land trust and operated by the Urban Farming Institute of Boston.
Social enterprises were spawned including Lloyd’s City Fresh Foods that serves fresh, locally sourced meals to schools, nursing homes and other community institutions and Haley House Bakery Café, which provides dining and catering and serves as a community gathering space. Other businesses are in the works.
Author Jan Roberts is founder and president of the Cultural Innovations Agency and is a documentarian of hopeful solutions that take care of people, communities and the planet.