Building Healthy Communities

An Interview with Ana Garcia of DASH-NY

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A well-designed community can also be a healthy community, presenting places for people to walk, play and participate in healthy activities. CNU’s Health Districts initiative brings together experts in health care, public policy and urban design to foster a collaborative, problem-solving approach to improved health through urban design.

Ana Garcia is Deputy Director, Division of Health Policy at New York Academy of Medicine and is an inspirational partner with CNU as we develop this initiative. CNU’s Tim Halbur and Andrea Vermirovska talked with Garcia recently about her work, which includes overseeing both the Designing a Strong and Healthy New York (DASH-NY) program focused on fighting obesity and Age-Friendly NYC.

CNU: Tell us a little bit about the Age Friendly NYC program to begin.

GARCIA: We have three areas of emphasis. One is healthy aging, prevention of chronic diseases and the elimination of health disparities. Five years ago, we started an aging initiative called Age Friendly NYC that is based on World Health Organization’s framework to promote healthy aging. We work with the transportation department, cultural institutions and academic institutions to figure out what opportunities there are to be more welcoming of older people in the city. It has been very exciting, a fabulous demonstration of the connection between health and New York City’s policy decisions.

Because of our work in obesity prevention and healthy aging, we were able to make the specific connections between health and urban design. But it has been a challenge to get out of our normal channels and understand specific policies in other sectors that we want to pursue. We had to get smart about all the different areas involved, and be creative about all the forums in which we bring people together to advance the healthy communities idea. We have gotten some unique and interesting insights from that experience of bringing people together around health, and we are excited to share what we’ve learned.

CNU: We've seen a lot of interesting work being done around New York to make it more walkable and bike-able. What changes have you been most excited about?

GARCIA: We are generally excited about the momentum around this. We have a contract with the state health department to be the statewide obesity prevention policy center and coalition. Our effort is really to think about all the components that make a healthy community. We’ve got 2,000 on our mailing list, we have a committee, and we are all working collaboratively on this idea. We passed the “complete streets” law, and we recently completed a study on implementation of that law and have found that it hasn’t been super successful. But we are seeing implementation at the local level, so that is a tremendous win for the state

CNU: We were told by a boardmember that we should ask you about the benches. What’s the story there?

GARCIA: This is an existing citywide initiative to bring benches back to New York City. There was a perception that if you have a bench in front of your establishment, you are pretty much inviting homeless people to camp out. In our assessments asking what older people want and need to feel comfortable, benches came up repeatedly. A lot of older people enjoy having the opportunity to sit somewhere in front of a street and have that connection to their community. We began to work with the park department to bring benches back.

CNU: What impact do you think urban planning has on obesity, especially childhood obesity?

GARCIA: It has tremendous potential to be a correction to some mistakes that have been made in how we organize our communities. If we don’t have the right paths between healthy recreations around home and school, children will not be lead to those locations. If we don’t have healthy retail opportunities that are located near by, people aren’t going to shop there. Urban planning can encourage the right choices down the path.