Monthly Archives: February 2012

Social and Health Implications of What We Build

It’s been difficult to think about the future since the recession began late in 2007.  And, even though economists assure us that this seemingly bottomless downturn ended in 2009, the aftershocks and adverse effects are still very evident.  Recovery, slow though it may be, allows us to envision a future once again for ourselves and for our communities.  As we refocus we notice changes that have occurred while we were busy coping with endless bad news, and we begin to consider again what we want to happen for our ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.

Last week, my colleague, Professor Tom Hammond, showed me Sanford Insurance Company maps of the Lehigh Valley dating as far back as 1885.  Anyone who thinks that the changes are over should study this series of maps– better yet, visit the new Broughal Middle School in Bethlehem, the Overlook Park neighborhood in Allentown, or the Silk Mill project in Easton.  While we once thought of community architecture as a matter of aesthetics or economics (what could we build?), as we look forward we see stunning health, social, and economic benefits that are possible when communities are designed in thoughtful ways.

New interdisciplinary research on the Built Behavior and Health is being conducted by teams of urban planners, architects, developers, social and health scientists, economists and others, and is funded by the federal government.  The findings from this research reveal significant relationships between the design of the built environment and multiple health and social outcomes, including obesity, asthma, mental illness, cognitive functioning, educational attainment, and all-cause mortality.  Further, we are beginning to understand how to strengthen “social capital”, or the fundamental sense of “community”,  at the same time.  How we design our future community, then, will undeniably affect our well-being.  Moreover– when input from residents, stakeholders, and cultural groups is considered in community design and redesign, results are even more beneficial.  Collaborative events, called “charrettes”, are increasingly common and involve a series of design-input-revision sequences that seek diverse perspectives– even from the children who live in a community– about what is most needed.

In sum, we can think about the future in ways that will benefit our children, our elders, our health, and our economic well-being if we consider evidence and findings from this new field of inquiry.  As we continue to pull ourselves out of the economic downturn, we can turn our attention back to the social and health implications of what we build.  The benefits will be tangible.

Our guest blogger, Dr. Arnold Spokane, is a Professor of Education and Psychology at Lehigh University.  Dr. Spokane specializes in the transdisciplinary study of person-environment interaction in work and urban community settings across cultures.  A long-time contributor to the vocational psychology literature, he is increasingly working in the field of public health psychology, disaster mental health, and the nature of individual and culturally-driven responses to both extreme and damaged environments.  Contact Dr. Spokane at ars1@lehigh.edu.

State of the Lehigh Valley

Thank you to everyone who attended the “State of the Lehigh Valley” lunch event on February 15th, and a special thanks again to our sponsors, without whom this event would not have been possible:  Highmark Blue Shield, Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, Capital Blue Cross, PPL, Air Products, Susquehanna Bank, Lehigh University’s Social Science Research Center, Just Born, Inc., Spillman Farmer Architects, and the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley!

With President Obama recently delivering his State of the Union address and Governor Corbett giving us the state of the commonwealth budget, it is an appropriate time to consider the “State of the LehighValley.” (To read the report: State of the Lehigh Valley 2011.) Last year the Lehigh Valley Research Consortium (LVRC) partnered with Renew LehighValley (RenewLV) to present “State of the Lehigh Valley 2010: Community Trends at a Glance” to an audience of 250 concerned LehighValley residents.

 This year’s presentation of the 2011 data focused on the livability of the LehighValley as measured by indicators like health, economics, education, environment, and quality of life standards. This year’s results suggest that the LehighValley “is in a better position economically and socially than in the recent past” even though most will agree that there are still many challenges to overcome before we can boast of regional prosperity.  The luncheon was very participatory, with audience members providing their perspectives about the LehighValley’s competitiveness, public schools, disparities in access to health care, air quality, jobs, housing, and quality of life using a hand-held electronic response system, thus allowing for real time results. There were community experts in attendance to facilitate discussion based on these results.

The LehighValley is a very diverse collection of 62 municipalities and 17 public school districts within two of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, all acting independently to govern and lead in the best interest of each area’s residents. While it is the uniqueness of each area that makes it pleasing to its inhabitants, the similarities from one municipality to the other and how they assimilate to form the Lehigh Valley is a natural progression of governance and decision-making, unnoticed by most who live here.

 In looking at just one section of data from the report, one sees that the Lehigh Valley’s current unemployment rate is higher than the Pennsylvania average, but lower than New Jersey and the national average, and our job growth is also below the rate of growth of Pennsylvania as a whole. On the other hand, average weekly wages in the LehighValley are higher than the state average but lower than New Jersey and the national average, and LehighValley residents as a group had higher median household incomes than the state and the nation. The report highlights how educational attainment is tied to this data. Perhaps a surprising statistic, graduation rates are not very different when economically disadvantaged student rates are compared to overall graduation rates, and in some districts the rate of graduation is higher among the economically disadvantaged students.

What does this mean?  Well, 90 percent of all residents surveyed rated the LehighValley as either good or excellent with regard to living in this area.  In light of the dissatisfaction with the economic situation, this is a significant statistic. It is indicative of the many great things the LehighValley offers its residents that are above and beyond dollars and cents: a relatively low crime rate, good public schools, easy access to goods and services, and a great network of hospitals and health care professionals. All of these are highlighted in the report.

I’m going to borrow a thought from this Sunday’s sermon (hope you don’t mind Father Steve) and if you have ever played sports, you will appreciate this. Were you ever a bench warmer?  Did you like sitting on the bench?  Or for that matter, if you were a starter, did you like coming out and watching from the sidelines?  I bet the answer is no. You wanted to be involved, to make your mark, to influence the outcome of the contest, to be heard and noticed.

Well now is your chance to do that for your community, our community, the community we all call home. Whether you live in the northern-most point of the Slate Belt or the west end of Allentown, you are a LehighValley resident and the health and well-being of our residents and our cities and boroughs is your business and your voice should be heard.  Time to get off the bench. Time to get involved. This is your opportunity to be in the starting five.  Take it and join the discussion.

Governor Corbett to Propose Fiscal Budget Feb. 7th

Stay tuned for Governor Corbett’s presentation of his proposed budget for fiscal year 2012-2013 on Tuesday, February 7th before a joint session of the PA House and Senate.  This is only the first step in the annual fiscal process, as legislators will be in budget meetings discussing the proposal in the days and weeks following Corbett’s proposal.

You may be asking, “Well, who cares?  It’s only the first step in the process.”  Guess what?  It does matter and you should care!  If you are concerned about cuts in funding for a particular program or agency, you need to speak up.  Take for example the students from four state-related universities who rallied at the Capitol building to advocate for state education funding.  They are concerned about financial aid and affordable tuition for college, and they made sure their voices were heard.

What are your biggest concerns as the state budget is debated and determined?  Share with us your thoughts.  But more importantly, share your thoughts with your local representatives and senators.  Let them hear your concerns so that they can be your voice in the debate.  Change won’t be accomplished unless you participate.

Watch the address at: http://www.governor.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/governor_pa_gov/20650

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