by Nevin Cohen, Associate Professor, CUNY School of Public Health
November 25, 2015
The shuttering of the East Harlem Pathmark, a 60,000 square foot supermarket that was a source of affordable food to local residents for more than 15 years, served as the backdrop for last week’s Food Policy for Breakfast. Pathmark’s rise and fall (discussed in another article in the November edition of our e-newsletter) illustrated the role of planning and zoning in shaping a neighborhood’s food environment, helping to frame the topic addressed by our panelists.
The East Harlem Pathmark was born in 1999 when community activists demanded what people in more affluent neighborhoods take for granted: a full-service supermarket big enough to carry a wide variety of fresh, affordable food. The store was the product of public policies, built on city land with public subsidies, and was vetted through a highly charged public review process.
The causes of Pathmark’s demise are complex, but the planning, zoning, and development policies that have reshaped East Harlem over the past 15 years were a contributing factor. City policies created a nearby shopping center that houses food retail giants Costco, Target, and Aldi. New supermarkets like Super Fi Emporium have opened by taking advantage of city zoning and financial incentives. And zoning changes throughout the community have spurred new housing occupied by higher income tenants more likely to frequent Whole Foods or Fresh Direct than Pathmark.
But the East Harlem Pathmark closure is about much more than the replacement of a supermarket with a much bigger and more lucrative development. It is about the pace and direction of change in East Harlem, and the fears, shared by residents of low-income neighborhoods throughout the city undergoing planning and rezoning, that new development will lead to gentrification and displacement of people and businesses. These changes can result in wider, not narrower, disparities in wealth, income, and health. These broader topics of equity, planning, and development were addressed by our panelists.
Advancing Health Equity in Government
Javier Lopez, Deputy Director of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s (DOHMH) Center for Health Equity, began the session by quoting Health Commissioner Mary Bassett: “Inequities in health are unfair, unnecessary and avoidable. New York City is the most unequal city in the United States and one of the most segregated. It is no surprise that these everyday realities are reflected in our health.” Lopez then described several approaches DOHMH is taking to address health inequities:
- Leading conversations within the Department about social and racial justice;
- Opening neighborhood health hubs throughout the city to build community capacity to address health inequities;
- Supporting community based non-profit organizations with health data analysis and program evaluation; and
- Disseminating data about health disparities, such as through DOHMH’s recently released Community Health Profiles, to frame policy conversations.
Lopez reflected on the potential for city agencies to incorporate health equity in the neighborhood planning and rezoning process:
- Involving the DOHMH more formally in the neighborhood planning processes taking place across the city;
- Using the Community Health Profiles, which document health disparities at the community district level, as framing documents for neighborhood planning efforts;
- Evaluating planning and rezoning proposals through health impact assessments (HIAs), tools used in other cities across the US to analyze the health consequences of government actions and to identify strategies to build health prevention into policies and programs;
- Using the HIA process to quantify the economic benefits that result from programs to prevent disease;
- Reconnecting the health and planning communities “just as we did 100 years ago when we were fixing water and sanitation and everything under the sun. That relationship can happen again.”
Incorporating Health in Planning and Development
Daniel Hernandez is the Deputy Commissioner for Neighborhood Strategies at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), a new office created to facilitate the Mayor’s Housing New York, which aims to create 200,000 units of affordable housing through preservation and new construction. Hernandez identified ways in which HPD can support healthy food environments and reduce health inequities as it develops neighborhood plans and rezoning proposals, and finances new housing:
- Shifting the market by getting developers that HPD finances to adopt healthy design features as a matter of course, in the same way it helped to move energy efficiency and green building practices forward.
- Using HPD’s neighborhood planning process as an opportunity not only to create affordable housing but also to ensure that investments in housing achieve broader goals such as health equity.
- Fostering interagency partnerships, like HPD’s work with DOHMH’s Center for Health Equity, to break down silos across agencies.
- Engaging neighborhood residents as “citizen planners” who can help HPD problem-solve.
- Working with the city’s Economic Development Corporation and Small Business Services to provide incentives and assistance programs to small business owners, particularly along commercial corridors in the communities being rezoned.
- Using Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) zoning and financial incentives “more deliberately” when negotiating project financing and incentives to encourage new grocery stores in residential buildings, particularly in the redevelopment of city-owned sites where access to grocery stores is desperately needed.
Engaging the Community in Project and Program Design
Shai Lauros oversees the development and management of affordable housing, community facilities, and commercial and manufacturing space for the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, as well as Cypress Hills Verde, a neighborhood-wide sustainability initiative advancing food access, urban agriculture, and energy efficiency throughout Cypress Hills and East New York, two low-income communities in the process of being rezoned.
Lauros described a project in construction at 2501 Pitkin Avenue — a 60-unit multifamily rental housing unit with a supermarket on the ground floor and backyard gardens for residents and community members — to highlight the opportunities and obstacles to incorporating food and healthy design in new development:
- The high cost of construction requires economies of scale, and thus increased density, to finance housing with healthy features such as a supermarket;
- The 7 years it will take for the Pitkin Avenue project to get from project conception to construction completion suggests the need to advance both discrete projects and larger political solutions to social inequality and health inequity;
- Zoning affects the spatial dimensions of a community but addressing social and economic disparities requires complementary and supportive programs;
- Creating programs and policies, along with modifying the built environment to address the needs of a neighborhood requires significant community involvement. Cypress Hills LDC plans, designs, and programs sites with, by, and for the community, with meetings, design charettes and town halls to ensure that supportive programming is determined by community members;
- Many community members have become quite sophisticated in their understanding of land use and zoning, and can acknowledge the need for increased density to make programming like food retail work. They are more concerned about issues of inequality and displacement than density per se;
- Elected officials and agency staff need to think long term about neighborhood planning because engaging residents in the process requires capacity building, which is difficult and time consuming, often exceeding the time span of a mayor’s term of office.
The breakfast was the start of what we hope will be an ongoing effort to engage communities more effectively with city planners, public health professionals and private developers to help shape the physical, economic and social landscapes of their neighborhoods. Improving the food environment to improve access to healthy food and reduce the incidence of diet related disease is one important objective of this process, but it is connected to a broader goal of community empowerment and control.