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.
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.