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Case study: Mattapan

How good design can boost a community’s physical and civic health

Stand in Mattapan Square, and it’s easy to see where good design is needed. Blue Hill Avenue traffic slices through the square. Cars are empowered; pedestrians are dwarfed. People hustle across this complex intersection of Blue Hill Avenue, Cummins Highway, and River Street, jaywalking when they have to because there aren’t enough pedestrian crosswalks painted on the asphalt. And what hangs in the air like exhaust fumes is the lingering sense that Mattapan is just a place some people drive through to get to the suburb of Milton.

“We avoid the Square as much as possible because we don’t think it’s safe,” says Vivien Morris, a Mattapan resident and a co-founder of the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition. Increase the Square’s safety, Morris suggests, and Boston’s Hubway bike sharing system could be brought to the area, creating a healthy travel option and greater transportation equity. Morris is the director of the Office of Racial Equity and Health Improvement at the City of Boston’s Public Health Commission.

The premise is enticing. Bike-and pedestrian-friendly streets could lower obesity rates. Parks could lower blood pressure. Empirical data to make this case may be limited. But Mattapan residents and community organizers are too busy building a healthier community to wait for statistics to confirm what they already know: that good design is good for communities.

Mattapan has more than its fair share of America’s health and economic problems. Residents grapple with asthma, diabetes, Vitamin D deficiency, obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and depression. From 2008 to 2012, Mattapan’s unemployment rate was 18.2 percent, much higher than Boston’s overall rate, according to the Public Health Commission’s “Health of Boston 2014–2015” report. Median income was $43,500, almost $10,000 less than Boston as a whole.

A section of the mural Taste of Home (Gou lakay mwen [Haitian Creole] or Sabor de Casa [Spanish]), 2015, by the Mayor’s Mural Crew. The 122-by-10-feet mural is located at America’s Food Basket, a grocery store in Mattapan Square. Photo: Heidi Schork

Set over: Hakim Carnes works on Taste of Home. Image from an ongoing series documenting the Boston Creates initiative. Photo: Leonardo March

Can health-promoting design tackle these problems? Yes, it can, says Azzie Young, ceo of the Mattapan Community Health Center. In 2012, the center opened its new “green” building in Mattapan Square. Staffers ask visitors who tour the building to describe it in one word. That word could be “light” or “colorful” or “windows” or “modern.”

But it’s closer to call it a vibrant human healthcare aquarium. Daylight streams into the health center’s buoyant atmosphere. The medical area is decorated in calm greens. The dental area is awash in Caribbean blues. Administrative areas are a cheerful orange. Patients and staff can see out, and the community can see in.

The point isn’t that the health center is pretty. It’s that the building increases patients’ access to medical care. The number of exam rooms has doubled. There’s more room for more doctors, which encourages more professional collaboration. Mammography services that were once provided in a van are now offered by Boston Medical Center in one of the health center’s suites. The ventilation system provides fresher air, a benefit for asthma patients. And the bright colors appeal to the neighborhood’s many Haitian and Caribbean residents.

The center also promotes the social determinants of health, Young explains, including employment. So it’s a design victory that it has space for two tenants — cvs and Citizens Bank — and that all three entities hire local residents. This integrated approach is a result of involving the community in the health center’s design, according to its architect, Kevin Neumann of Steffian Bradley Architects.

Residents are also working on health and design. On a humid night inside the Mildred Avenue Community Center, neighbors gathered for the August meeting of the Food and Fitness Coalition. People introduced themselves by sharing their favorite childhood activities, a range that included soccer, jump rope, cricket, biking, playing tag, and square dancing. Then the reports began: updates on events and projects, including Mattapan’s farmer’s market, the Woolson Street community garden, and the success of the previous month’s Mattapan on Wheels 5th Annual Bike-a-Thon.

A group of “Healthy Community Champions” — grassroots community ambassadors supported by federal funding —  reported on their efforts in three areas: increasing access to healthy food, campaigning for smoke-free housing, and increasing physical activity.

Suggestions and offers were made. There’s a bike lane in Truman Parkway in Milton, someone said. Couldn’t it be extended into Mattapan? And does anyone need the extra worms that have been used for the community garden’s composting?

An undercurrent ran through the meeting: Well-designed environments can boost a community’s physical and civic health. That’s also a major initiative of the American Institute of Architects. “When people think of health, often the first thing that comes to mind is the medical industry and treating illness when individuals are unwell. However, architects can help create healthy communities,” according to a 2012 AIA report, “Local Leaders: Healthier Communities Through Design.” “Preventative strategies for improving health can be designed into our cities in a way that could lead to better health outcomes, helping people from becoming sick in the first place.”

What’s next for the neighborhood? Mattapan Square Main Streets, which was founded in 2011, is working on plans to develop and promote the area’s cultural and economic assets. Mattapan will also be engaged in Mayor Martin Walsh’s Imagine Boston 2030 initiative, a planning exercise that asks residents to “Share Your Vision” to “Shape Our City.” And the Neponset River Greenway is being expanded to add Mattapan and Milton to its bike and pedestrian pathway, which will run from Dorchester to Hyde Park.

Residents and community organizers also have a wish list of more projects they’d like to see in Mattapan, including:

  • Creating a central gathering place in the heart of Mattapan Square, where people could meet and information could be shared. This could include periodically closing off Fairway Street, a small side street just off Blue Hill Avenue, to host events.
  • Turning the beige brick building that sits empty on Mattapan Square into a visitor’s center or a canoe launch on to the nearby river. The building is owned by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, and officials there are evaluating how it can be used to support the Neponset River Greenway.
  • Incorporating healthy design into whatever gets built on the Mattapan station commuter lot, which is being sold by the MBTA.
  • Increasing the number of community gardens. These provide learning experiences for children and, more crucially, fresh food for people who may not be able to afford it.
  • Adding bike lanes, enforcing rules that ban double parking, and slowing down the traffic on Blue Hill Avenue.

Then, there’s the matter of what could be called soft design, promoting the civic organization it will take to encourage people to use what gets built.

“I am adamant that when this baby opens, we’ve got to be out there,” Vivian Ortiz said, walking along River Street beside the Neponset River Greenway, where she wants community members to walk and bike and enjoy the scene once the Greenway is completed. Ortiz is the project coordinator for Mattapan’s Let’s Get Healthy, Boston! initiative. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the grant is being managed by the Boston Public Health Commission. Recipients include the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition and 11 other community organizations in Boston.

It’s not simply a case of if you build it, they will come. Ortiz says it takes outreach and programming that informs people and gets them out into the community.

Architect David Lee, of Stull and Lee, agrees. “Design can do some things, but it has to be combined with programming. It has to be combined with common sense.” Lee says Mattapan — and Boston — should be thinking about multiple forms of mobility, not just cars, and about equal access to reliable transportation. Traffic and driving patterns need attention, especially because, as Lee says with simple clarity, “Getting hit by a car is a bad health outcome.”

He points to the Southwest Corridor Park, which he codesigned, saying it has become “a set of lungs” for the Boston neighborhoods it connects. And he notes that New York City’s elevated High Line park has opened up new options for moving around the city.

“I’d like to see more spaces where we can come together across neighborhood boundaries,” says Lee, citing Downtown Crossing in Boston as an example, as well as New York City’s Washington Square Park, where African drummers and chess players peacefully coexist.

As for Mattapan, it’s on its way to creating well-designed, healthy spaces that can be shared with residents and all of Boston — an ongoing effort that could use the insights of architecture and design professionals who have a keen interest in the community’s conversations.

Stand in Mattapan Square amid the traffic, the stores, the people, and the dreams, and it’s easy to feel how much potential there is to make Mattapan a model of urban well-being. ■