Written by Guest Blog Author, Victoria Strang, Community Impact Director for the Southern New England American Heart Association
We know that being active is one of the biggest drivers to leading a healthier life and diminishing your chances of developing heart disease. Unfortunately, many low-income communities in our region struggle to be active simply due to a lack of infrastructure that will keep them safe while doing so. This is especially true in the city of Providence. Access to bike lanes, connected trails, and sidewalks that can accommodate walkers, bikers, scooters, and wheelchair users have historically been more present in wealthier neighborhoods of the city. This makes it easier for individuals in those areas not only to get out and get active but to commute to jobs and offices as well as patronize local businesses without the use of a car. All of this creates an environment with less air pollutants, safer streets, and more options for transportation.
Data shows that neighborhoods on the east side of the city (Fox Point, Wayland Square, College Hill, and Blackstone Boulevard) all have lower rates of obesity hovering around 20%-25% of residents depending on the neighborhood. However, when we look at lower-income areas of the city such as South Providence, the West End, and Elmwood we see adult obesity rates climbing up to 40%. Other health factors that contribute to heart disease such as high blood pressure and diabetes are also higher in these lower income areas.
While there are a number of factors that contribute to these poor health outcomes, we know that the ability to get outside and get moving is crucial in AHA’s mission to help all people live longer and healthier lives. Improving the built environment to make walking, biking or rolling easier can aid in increasing physical activity and improving health in all populations. Policies that support #activetransportation help create equitable access to healthy living.
That is why the Southern New England Community Impact program has partnered with the Providence Streets Coalition to support the City of Providence’s Great Streets Initiative and proposed Urban Trail Network, a 75-mile system of off-road paths, separated on-road trails, and low-stress neighborhood greenways. This plan will touch every part of Providence, with a particular emphasis on lower income neighborhoods, ultimately bringing 93% of residents and 95% of jobs within easy access of the Urban Trails Network. While much of this work is currently focused on Providence, it will have impacts on the rest of the state and will eventually spread farther.
In addition to the infrastructure redesign, the Coalition is focused on community input and education and has held a number of community listening sessions across the city. They have also released a series of illustrations that show local residents how urban trails make streets safer and less confusing by getting people on bikes and scooters out of the way of people driving and walking.
The Providence Streets campaign is launching as cities – including Providence – continue to reopen parts of the economy after shutting large swaths down to slow the spread of COVID-19. During the shutdown, urban planners, transit advocates, public health workers, and elected officials in cities around the world have been rethinking urban infrastructure, responding to the need for more public space for people to safely travel, work, access services, eat, drink, shop and play both during and after the pandemic. 
We are excited to be a part of this initiative that will transform the city by providing more transportation options to improve safety, equity, sustainability, health, and quality-of-life across all our neighborhoods.
Victoria Strang, is the Community Impact Director for the Southern New England American Heart Association. With a Masters from Yale Divinity School, focusing in Public Health and Human Rights, Victoria focuses her skills to develop a community impact program focused on social determinants and improving health equity throughout Southern New England. Connect with Victoria by emailing: [email protected].