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Rhode Island’s Investment in Health and Livability

by Wendy Fachon

In 2015, the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) established the Health Equity Zone (HEZ) initiative, which recognizes that 80 percent of people’s health is determined outside the doctor’s office and inside homes, schools, jobs and neighborhoods. HEZ’s goal is to eliminate health disparities using place-based strategies to promote healthy communities. To have the biggest impact on health outcomes and help curb the rising cost of care, RIDOH is helping municipalities shift investments toward creating healthier communities.

Achieving health equity requires understanding how community needs differ and investing in the specific resources each community needs to give everyone a fair chance at good health. When health equity exists, everyone benefits. Health outcomes get better, workplace productivity improves, and communities grow stronger and more resilient.

The HEZ initiative is an innovative approach that brings communities together to build the infrastructure needed to achieve healthy, systemic changes at the local level. Through a collaborative, community-led process, municipalities conduct a needs assessment and implement a data-driven plan of action to address the unique social, economic and environmental factors that are preventing people from being as healthy as possible. Local initiatives engage the entire community to create solutions for the issues that people care about, through sustainable actions that are culturally and socially relevant.

Among seven HEZ communities that have identified the built environment as their priority area, the Pawtucket and Central Falls Health Equity Zone has partnered with the City of Central Falls Planning Department to develop Rhode Island’s first Complete and Green Streets Ordinance. The ordinance was established to ensure safe access to roadways for users of all ages and abilities and to protect the environment.

Complete Streets help create livable communities for various users, including children, people with disabilities and older adults. Planning may include sidewalks, bike lanes, special bus lanes, comfortable and accessible public transportation stops, frequent and safe crossing opportunities, accessible pedestrian signals, median islands and narrower travel lanes. In a community such as Central Falls, where many families are without cars, these features are critical.

Complete and Green Streets also incorporate landscaping elements that help curb storm water runoff. Bioswales, planters, rain gardens and street trees are mutually beneficial for mobility and ecology. These elements make roads and sidewalks more pleasant and inviting, and they improve air and water quality.

Mia Patriarca, healthy communities specialist with RIDOH, supports the HEZ process, collaborating with Grow Smart Rhode Island to provide training and technical assistance to municipalities and city councils. As the HEZ initiative grows, Patriarca and Grow Smart are now working with Newport and Bristol HEZs to adopt Complete and Green Streets ordinances.

For more information about Health Equity Zones, visit  Health.RI.Gov/hez. Find more resources through Grow Smart Rhode Island at GrowSmartRI.org.