Healthfields: Creating healthy communities and improving neighborhoods at the same time

Willa Cather Center
The Willa Carson Health and Wellness Center in Clearwater, FL used to be a vacant gas station.

As cities and towns seek to improve conditions for economic development, a burgeoning trend is beginning to take hold in communities around the country. Forgoing the traditional methods of pursuing private investment, some communities are instead taking a ‘health-based’ approach – identifying basic community needs like access to health care, fresh food, and safe places to gather and play and prioritizing those investments to sustain a healthy neighborhood. When these priorities are incorporated into brownfield redevelopment, the result is known as a “Healthfield,” and the concept is gaining traction with planners, health professionals and environmental advocates around the country.

Miles Ballogg, Director for Brownfields and Economic Development at Cardno TBE in Clearwater, Florida, first popularized the term “Healthfield” after the concept began to flourish across Florida. Beginning with the Willa Carson Clinic in Clearwater, described below, Ballogg has helped to conceive, plan and promote dozens of Healthfields around the state. The common ingredients in each of these projects have been a vacant site, a pressing community need, and a group of dedicated volunteers and professionals who have worked to secure crucial resources.

One woman’s vision for affordable, accessible health care
The Willa Carson Health and Wellness Center is located in the largely African-American North Greenwood neighborhood of Clearwater, FL. Inside the one-story pink building are examination rooms, a pharmacy, and a community room with an attached kitchen for preparing healthy meals and providing nutritional training. Willa Carson was a retired nurse who provided health care out of her apartment in a neighboring housing development. Spurred on by increasing demand for health services and the problems her neighbors had in accessing emergency care, Mrs. Carson cast her eyes on the vacant gas station she could see from her clinic window. For support, she enlisted her neighbors and city officials, eventually raising enough money to build and operate a free clinic on the former gas station site.

Many of the Healthfields in Florida are family-focused health centers. Developed by companies like Tampa Family Health Centers and Central Florida Health Care, Inc., these affordable clinics provide a wide range of health services, including education and preventative care as well as walk-in care and ongoing care for chronic illnesses. Because they have experience in navigating health services funding programs, these companies play a crucial role in helping smaller and lower-income communities identify needs and appropriate locations for new clinics. In addition, non-profit health centers can secure federal grants for clinic construction and operations.

Clinics, as important as they are in many neighborhoods, are not the only end use that supports community health. “Healthfield for me means much more than a clinic,” says Lara Diettrich of Diettrich Planning, LLC in Jacksonville, FL. “Healthfields are youth centers, dog parks, community gardens, playgrounds, grocery stores, housing for active seniors…you name it.” Public spaces like these, she points out, are important because they support the psychological health of the community as well as providing places for physical activity.

A common point of focus
By defining and prioritizing their health needs, residents can bring redevelopment and health officials together and steer the redevelopment process in the right direction. Community leadership can be especially significant in neighborhoods with environmental justice concerns, where residents’ health has suffered from pollution, poor access to jobs and public services, and a shortage of affordable, healthy food. Whether identified as “medically underserved populations,” “food deserts,” or neighborhoods with “park disparities,” communities with unmet needs can use Healthfields strategically to focus attention and resources from multiple public and private agencies and organizations.

More to come
Healthfields is one of the cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary approaches to redeveloping vacant properties that Smart Growth America has been studying with support from the Environmental Protection Agency. Over the next weeks, we will continue to explore the value and challenges of Healthfield development, looking particularly at how community residents and planners can use the Healthfields concept to achieve multiple goals for community health, environmental justice, and economic development. Upcoming blog posts will focus on different types of Healthfields, community engagement tools, and the results of our Healthfields workshop at the Brownfields 2013 conference later this month. Interesting in joining that event? Click here to register.