The Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods partnership in Columbia addressed significant creative tension around issues of race and class by slowing down its timeline and investing in greater community engagement, cultural competency, strategic relationship building, youth advocacy and leadership development.
Columbia is a college town located in the center of Missouri, midway between Kansas City to the west and St. Louis to the east. It is not a highly diverse community overall, but Ward One and other neighborhoods have much greater racial and ethnic diversity, higher rates of poverty and crime, and more students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in the public schools.
In order to provide children in these areas with safe, socially connected environments that support outdoor play, active travel and access to affordable, nutritious foods close to home, a partnership that ultimately named itself Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods (U4HN), pursued an intensive community engagement, assessment and capacity building effort, and established six community-based action teams to lay the groundwork for advocacy and change.
Led by a well-established active transportation group called the PedNet Coalition and anchored across strategies managed by the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health, the partnership was comprised of a long-time group of grassroots advocates, public schools, academics and leaders from government and the faith-based community. Together, they succeeded at creating widespread change to increase health equity.
Key achievements include:
A joint use agreement to turn a half-acre vacant lot into an active, 26-plot community garden with on-site equipment storage and city water and eight new community garden sites in the First Ward, including 89 fruit trees and 135 berry bushes.
An Access to Healthy Foods program that doubled purchases at the Columbia Farmers’ Market for 150 WIC-eligible families, resulting in the purchase and consumption of more than $20,000 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Establishment, reinvigoration and formal recognition by the city of three neighborhood associations in the First Ward and the city’s establishment of a Neighborhood Congress training program to build the capacity of neighborhood associations.
Launch of Columbians for Modern Efficient Transit, a campaign to advocate for a tripling of public transit service that turned back a proposal to cut service, elevated bus expansion as a key political issue, and garnered endorsements from 48 organizations and 3,353 individuals;
A more accessible and welcoming process at the Activity and Recreation Center for requesting financial assistance.
A speed reduction ordinance, kid-friendly speed limit signs and the construction of a $200,000 pedestrian-actuated crosswalk system on Providence Road, connecting public housing more safely to a city park and a high school across a high-speed, high-volume state highway.
Completion of a health impact assessment (HIA) of expanded transit and the establishment of HIA as a tool for policymakers.
Training of 50 diverse youth through the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s “EmpowerMe4Change” advocacy curriculum and their subsequent advocacy for healthier environments to City Council, the Board of Education and the Board of Health.
Has Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods really made a difference? Project Director, Ian Thomas, certainly thinks so. “Beyond the strategic alliances and tremendous positive change we’ve seen in the community, the public conversations about health, place and the importance of policies to making Columbia a truly healthy place for everyone have all become more commonplace,” says Thomas. “Now that I’ve been elected to the City Council, they can only become more so!”