Strengthen Community

Strengthen Community

Green the Streets

A counterpoint to "broken windows theory," the idea of "busy streets" builds on the notion that safe neighborhoods with engaged residents are healthier all-around. It can start with something as simple as a street beautification project, says SPH Professor Marc Zimmerman, founding director of the U-M Prevention Research Center, which has been partnering with community organizations in Flint and Genesee County since 1998 to improve health outcomes in the city and county.

A related idea is the notion of "greening" - environmental design that encourages people to engage in their community and with each other. Zimmerman and his PRC colleagues are now evaluating a three-year community initiative, Youth Violence Prevention Through Environmental Design, aimed at improving a two-to-three mile stretch along Flint's University Avenue through such means as replacing a liquor store with a restaurant, converting an abandoned lot into a mini-park, planting a produce garden, and holding community social events. So far, Zimmerman says, findings suggest this kind of "greening" has a positive effect on health.

Empower Youth

That's the idea behind YES, or Youth Empowerment Solutions, an evidence-based violence-prevention program launched in 2004 by the Flint-based U-M Prevention Research Center. The overarching goal of YES is to prevent youth violence in at-risk populations by creating opportunities and structures through which young people can "be a positive force for change in their communities," says PRC Director Marc Zimmerman.

Recently, through a new violence-prevention program sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, four U.S. cities - Boston, Massachusetts; Houston, Texas; Portland, Oregon; and Salinas, California - have adapted YES for use in their communities.

Say Yes to YES

Seven years ago, Jerimiah Neyland took part in Youth Empowerment Solutions (YES), a partnership between SPH and the Flint (Michigan) community to help prevent violence among kids and teens by encouraging community involvement. Neyland spent two years as a YES participant. Now 19, and a sophomore at U-M Flint, Neyland spoke to Findings about his experience with YES:

YES is designed to help young people navigate the tricky transition from childhood to adolescence. Did it do that for you?

In my neighborhood in Flint, there weren't really a lot of options for kids growing up in what was considered the 'hood. So if you didn't find a sport or a hobby, you'd just be out to explore the streets and do God knows what. YES gave me a safe haven, a fun place to go, and a group of people to be with. Some of the things that I picked up at YES still help me today - talking to people, working with other people, planning things - skills I've really honed. YES laid a foundation for us to go out and find other positive groups that were looking for people like us, and other places where we belong.

What's the secret to YES?

Two things. A focus on fun, and a focus on freedom. So the adults in the program will say, "Here's three things that we can do." But they don't pick one - instead they listen to the kids. Normally the kids will take the idea and turn it into something that will be really fun for them. After a while the kids start to build this correlation between fun and community awareness and community advocacy, and before you know it you've got 25 community advocates.

Did YES make you feel differently about Flint?

It wasn't until I became a part of YES that I started to take a step back and see the world around me. I said, "Wow, this is really not cool! This guy's selling crack to children." So it changed my perspective. And once you start to invest in the community - peace parks, murals, and things like that - you get attached. After moving away from YES, I couldn't help but find myself wanting to contribute more. A lot of us in the program, we branched out, we found other ways to give back to our communities.

Connect to Community

The research is clear: when people feel connected to their neighborhoods, their health improves. Health also improves when people go outside and when they exercise. So Ella August—an adjunct research assistant professor in epidemiology who has spent years studying the social and physical factors that promote health - decided to "put into practice" all the numbers she's been crunching at her computer and create an Ann Arbor Art Map to help get residents of the city outdoors, moving, and more connected to where they live.

August's easy-to-use map, available in print and eventually as a mobile app, charts six themed routes that lead to and around nearly 60 works of outdoor art in downtown Ann Arbor and on U-M's two Ann Arbor campuses. Users can walk, run, or in most cases bike the routes, which range from 1.5 to 5 miles and bear names like "Wonder," "Love & Heroes," and "Nature." The mobile app will also feature spoken commentary from many of the artists. "The art in Ann Arbor is incredible, and really, unless you're paying attention, you may not notice it," says August, who's already at work on special Ann Arbor art maps for kids and for the blind.