Building Healthy Neighborhoods

  • Bob Oaks for the North-Missoula Community Development Corporation

“All those things for which we have no words are lost.  The mind – the culture – has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel.  With these we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work.  With these we try and save our very lives.”

Annie Dillard – from “Total Eclipse” in Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper and Row, 1982.

In Missoula, at the North-Missoula Community Development Corporation we have always tried to “think outside the box”– or outside of our sand box, if we listen to Annie Dillard.  A lot of us in the community development field bat about the term “holistic.”  But trying to think and act holistically can be surprisingly difficult (grammar- and lexicon-limited as we are).  And, sometimes, with a few notable exceptions, it can be especially hard to explain this broad view to “experts” – the specialists who bluster about our communities doing the work of community investment, development and administration.  Sadly, we have sometimes even found it difficult to explain our perspective to the organizations whose mission it is to fund and promote the good work of community building.  They don’t usually say so, but we fear they may see us as being “all over the map.”

We do condition our viewpoint, however, on some very reputable antecedents.  Since the 1950’s, instead of searching for remedies to neighborhood blight only after it reared its ugly head, a small group of healthy community practitioners concentrated on making communities socially invested and well.  Healthy community pioneers, like Leonard Duhl and John McKnight, often turned to ecologists to understand how members of complex communities interrelate successfully.  They also turned to the historic model of the public health practitioners who, for years, seemed to understand best, the salutary ramifications of social investments – “you get what you pay for, and paying up front is usually a lot cheaper and more humane than paying over time.” The public health lens, through which to view community and neighborhood, has had waxing and waning utility for well more than fifty years and, one hopes, is experiencing a social renaissance in Missoula and more broadly.

Because it can be so elusive, this big picture perspective cannot be over emphasized.  It is too easy to slip back into the flawed ethos of seeing communities in fragmented ways – the trees instead of the forest – our words limiting our ideas.  Our professional lexicons, our educational disciplines and the specialists they produce, tend to compartmentalize our social thinking.  Housing; economic development; physical health; recreation; transportation; nutrition; education; are some of the isolates of our social thinking.  Many of us bemoan “degradation of the environment” or “loss of community” along with “the breakdown of the family” as causes of social malaise.  We forget that humans must naturally interrelate (with each other and with our environment).  And we do so, either functionally or dysfunctionally, not in textbooks or in commission reports, but on the ground, in our homes and in our neighborhoods.  A healthy social dynamic seeks mutual compatibility and fulfillment – the same way that water seeks its own level.

Ignoring how interrelationships happen in, and over, time doesn’t make these interdependencies go away.  Mistaking symptoms for causes doesn’t help us invest our resources wisely.  It’s sounder to invest in education than prisons, in pre-natal care rather than disability services, in job retention rather than welfare relief, in neighborhoods rather than bureaucracies, in people rather than professional services.  In our community development corporation, we feel the most comfortable approach to holism is to apply an ecological approach to neighborhood.  We think investments promoting livable neighborhoods build community and reinforce families.

Citizen Experts

There are highly trained sets of experts who function in the classic arenas of community development, all of which have a distinct subset of problems that need to be addressed in order to help “the poor” (the other) access housing, jobs, nutrition, health services, education, recreation and transportation.  In the 1960’s, in the aftermath of urban renewal programs, among the many reported horrors of urban race riots, were stories about a handful of high-rise-public-housing residents who shot at the firefighters come to put out the blazes set by the neighbors themselves.  Reportedly, these snipers positioned themselves on the roofs of their high-rise subsidized housing, the human warehouses that served neighbors and neighborhoods dysfunctionally.  There are community development corporations in big cities all over the country that have worked to rebuild neighborhoods on the sites of these urban disasters.  They are trying to create human scale places not only to house people but where those same people can work and play, shop, be schooled, and socialize.

Historically, in some communities, there have been economic development initiatives and job creation programs that have subsidized polluting industries.  A medical response to mounting air shed pollution was likely to have been the recruitment of more pulmonary specialists.  Product-centered educational administrators who believed that their only business was economically efficient educational supply, could embrace the seductions in the economies of scale and centralization — closing neighborhood schools, while ignoring that small schools and the stability of neighborhoods play a central role in childhood well-being.  Transportation experts have often been more concerned with moving large volumes of vehicles than with the social and environmental impacts of big new roads.  They have sometimes destroyed neighborhoods rather than connect them.

For well more than 20 years, the NMCDC has had a philosophical perspective that residents are the primary “experts” on neighborhood affairs.  The organization often took its most successful strategic planning directives from Missoula’s Joint Northside/Westside Neighborhood Plan.  This plan was a citizen initiated and government funded effort.  Our neighborhoods began the planning process in 1996 and revisited it in 2006.  In its original crafting, there were more than 45 heavily publicized community meetings.  Ratified in the summer of 2000 by the Missoula City Council, the plan’s over-riding vision was the desire of neighborhood residents to “perpetuate, re-create and further promote their historic neighborhoods’ development as a community for working class Missoulians.”  Neighbors wanted to “improve opportunities for access to economic security, affordable housing, safe transportation, necessary human services, recreational facilities, open space, and meaningful social interaction for people of all ages and abilities.”  In 2006, the NMCDC promoted and helped fund a citizen review of the neighborhood plan to help residents analyze the neighborhoods’ changes over the previous ten years.  Broad based neighborhood surveys were conducted in 1996, 2006, and 2014.

These efforts were engaged to keep faith with the agreement among the original citizen planners that, “…the collective experiences of the people who live and work in the neighborhoods provide the best source for identifying neighborhood strengths and crafting strategies for meeting neighborhood goals.”  The extensive public involvement in the creation of the comprehensive neighborhood plan taught valuable lessons to the NMCDC’s staff and board of directors.

Our Land Stewardship Program for affordable home ownership (a community land trust now with 54 homes); a Moon-Randolph Homestead Preservation Coalition for open space, historic preservation, traditional agriculture demonstration and recreational trail connection; the Northside Greenway and pedestrian overpass; Broadway pedestrian safety advocacy; the Missoula Outdoor Cinema; support for the community effort to clean up the State Superfund, White Pine Sash mill site; and even the now, sadly discontinued, ten-year effort to sustain the Missoula Community Food Co-op; were all grass roots initiated projects that came to life through the NMCDC’s availability as a neighborhood opportunity center.  We have also been able to play midwife for other start-up nonprofits including the Missoula Clay Studio, Missoula Home Resource (a center for recycling building materials), and Missoula’s Bike Walk Alliance (BWAM).

When residents — those, we think, who “planned to stay” — were asked, “What makes a healthy neighborhood?”  They spoke most often of safe streets, easy neighborhood transportation access, conversations over back fences, front porches that faced sidewalks, shade trees, bike and walking paths and public art.  They spoke of family stability and equated that with decent-paying jobs and housing they could afford.  They spoke of neighbors sharing responsibilities and watching over the neighborhood’s kids.  People wanted public gathering places and community gardens.  They wanted safe places for kids to play.  They wanted meaningful ways to become involved (have authorship) in their community’s future.  They wanted to feel that there would be a caring community to embrace them when they were old.

The original plan-related survey on Missoula’s North and Westside facilitated by the NMCDC and funded and compiled by the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) in 1997, showed that two-thirds of the sampled residents had lived in their neighborhood for less than five years, and over one-third planned to move within five years.  In 1997 half of the surveyed neighbors stated they would prefer living in some other neighborhood. Twenty percent of the sampled households included at least one member who was unemployed and looking for work. Burdensome housing costs were one of the neighborhoods’ most serious problems. In 1997, 67 percent of the sampled neighborhood households reported that they spent more than 30 percent of their gross incomes on housing.

Another 2006 Office of Planning and Grants survey, associated with the Neighborhood Plan’s review, indicated that residents’ attitudes had begun to change.  Respondents to this survey indicated that people were generally less transient and happier than they were ten years earlier.  In 2006 the number of respondents with more than six years tenure had increased from 40 to 60 percent.  When asked where they would most like to live, 55 percent of the respondents answered, “in my neighborhood” (cf., 49 percent in 1997).

Almost half of the 2006 survey respondents reported speaking to neighbors daily, regularly sharing in social activities, and helping one another in yard work and home repair projects.  When asked to describe how they thought the neighborhood had improved in the last five years, the majority of survey residents mentioned their appreciation for the repair and renovation of the neighborhoods’ older housing stock – often undertaken by new homeowners and young families.  People also mentioned improved sidewalk and playground facilities, and a general sense that the neighborhood was being “cleaned up.” Housing costs remained an onerous burden with 63 percent of the respondents in 2006 reporting rent or mortgage payments exhausting more than 30 percent of their gross incomes (cf., 67 percent in 1997).  This is in spite of the fact that 7 percent fewer responding households identified themselves as having members unemployed and looking for work.

At NMCDC’s request in 2014, another neighborhood survey conducted under the auspices of the Missoula Department of Development Services found, as the previous surveys had, that the closeness to downtown ranked very high in terms of neighborhood desirability.  The presence of parks and gardens and a generally recognized “sense of community” followed closely behind. Responses related to social interaction, activities shared, and appreciated neighborhood improvements were strikingly similar to those in the survey sent out 8 years prior. Now, 72 percent said they preferred their own neighborhood to others.  Still, 59 percent of respondents reported spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent or mortgage.  At that time, toward the end of the Great Recession, 14 percent of responding households mentioned at least one member unemployed and looking for work.  The reported length of residential tenure of more than six years  had declined to 50 percent.

Top ranking responses in all surveys were the expressed appreciation for efforts to rehabilitate deteriorated housing stock.  Most frequently expressed housing needs stressed a desire for help accessing entry-level home ownership opportunity.  Such healthy neighborhood opportunities are, unfortunately, rapidly moving more and more out of reach for the average income Missoula household.

Critical Role of Housing

If we look outside the pigeonholes of the box that makes up an institutional, professionalized, model of community health, we find a vindication for the wisdom of neighbors.  Unsurprising conclusions from myriad studies are that children who are from poverty level households are more likely to have difficulty in school, become teen parents, and as adults, earn less and show more likelihood to be unemployed.  A major key indicator for children’s good health is secure parental employment and adequate, un-crowded, and affordable housing.  It is generally recognized that paying more than 30 percent of family income on rent or mortgage can leave insufficient resources for other essential family needs.  The Missoula Organization of Realtors (MOR) reports that in both 2015 and 2016 approximately 47 percent of renters spent more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent.  That number increased to 49 percent in 2017.

We also know that high residential transiency and low home ownership rates can have deleterious community consequences in terms of crime, disinvestment and public apathy.  Without outside assistance, it has become almost impossible for most renters in Missoula to achieve entry-level home ownership.  Again, MOR reports that the median sale priced home in Missoula County was $290,000 in 2018. After a 5 percent down payment, a household would need an annual income of $95,731 to purchase that home.  The median income for renters is $29,793. A two-income household near the median would still fall $36,000 a year short of median-priced home purchase.

Studies in Missoula harking back to at least 1995 have identified unstable shelter as one of the highest risk factors influencing all age groups studied.  Close to half of the student body of our neighborhood elementary school turns over every year as the families come and go.  The compelling social value of housing attainability has long been recognized.  In a 1989 study, “The Same Client: The Demographics of Education and Service Delivery Systems,” Harold Hodgkinson wrote, “…like preventive medicine, [social strategies] could be based on limiting the area in which potential poverty families are most vulnerable – housing.  A range of programs need to be developed to accomplish this goal – to keep working families out of poverty in the first place.  Housing is the most important area of vulnerability.  If low-income children were living in economically and socially secure housing with some rent protection, there is little doubt that most of them could stay out of poverty and in school, while their parent(s) could stay on the job and off welfare.  We are just beginning to understand the effects of housing on many other areas of life, including education, health, crime, etc.  The costs of housing innovations would be a small drop in the bucket, compared to the benefits of having more kids staying in school to become taxpaying job holders!”

Holistic Health

In the early 1980’s data collected in New York City indicated that the rate of pediatric severe injury and death for central Harlem children was 1,141 out of 100,000 in the population.  After the establishment and intervention of the Harlem Hospital Injury Prevention Program (HHIPP) this number, by 1998, had fallen to 518 out of 100,000 in the population.  The program involved the rehabilitation of virtually every playground in Central Harlem, the development of new parks programs and neighborhood policing to rescue playgrounds from gangs and drug dealers.

The HHIPP also conducted bicycle safety projects, gardening projects in several Harlem school sites and art education in a hospital-site studio.  The program created a “Unity With Murals” project and founded the Harlem Hospital Dance Clinic.  A group of parents working with HHIPP enlisted local business help to establish a Central Harlem Little League.  Needless to say, this enormously successful approach was not a traditional medical response to inner city pediatric trauma problems – nor was it a normal bureaucratic response.  It was, however, a very successful example of holistic, grass roots, citizen involved thinking in action.

As long as we are able, the NMCDC plans on trying to see a social “big picture” within the context of our own neighborhood setting.  We want to make a better neighborhood, one in which families want to put down roots.  We want to create opportunities for people of modest means to do that.  Ours is an experiment based on interrelationships.  We feel we must be about housing but need to also find ways to be about more than only housing, or mitigation of poverty, or recreational opportunity, or parks and infrastructure development or historic preservation or open space creation or safe transportation or access to sound nutrition (as important as they all, individually, are).  We feel we need to be about all those and more.  We want to encourage the synergies that healthy neighborhoods generate.  We want to see our neighborhoods revitalized as good homes for all of us.