Why Place Matters: Data on health, housing and equity

The variables that affect our individual health are too many to name or measure.  Genetics and behavior are strong determinants for most of us.  For some, mere chance can lead to contracting a deadly virus or suffering chronic pain from an accidental injury like a fall or a car accident.  Less understood and attended to is the way our health is determined by our ‘place’ – the houses, streets, neighborhoods, cities and small towns that we live and work in everyday.

I recently presented research on how place affects health to an Oklahoma Health Equity Campaign (OHEC) meeting   OHEC is a network of individuals and organizations working to broaden Oklahomans’ understanding of how socio-economic and racial inequities impact health.  Using American Housing Survey data for Oklahoma City, the presentation highlights how the built environment of the city and differential access to public services affect household and neighborhood health.  Click here to view or download the presentation.  Here’s a snapshot of some of the data points and their relation to health outcomes:

  • Water leakage, plumbing and sewage problems, and the accumulation of trash/litter 

Unsanitary houses and neighborhoods are unsafe for children, they breed infection, and they discourage the play and exercise that we all need to stay fit.  Leaky structures harbor mold, which can exacerbate existing illness and/or spawn a variety of nasty ailments.

  • Proximity to commercial, institutional, industrial zones or major highways and roadways

Air pollution from major traffic corridors, large stretches of commercial parking lots, and industrial operations exacerbates asthma and respiratory conditions, particularly for the very young, old, or already sick.  Constant daily exposure to noise and air pollution taxes your immune system, triggers a stress response, and frustrates mental health and wellbeing.

  • Access to safe drinking water, fresh groceries, and complete kitchen facilities

Being able to buy and cook nutritious food is the cornerstone of good health – particularly for infants and young children. 

While the results reveal differences in the environmental quality of individual housing units and neighborhoods, they also offer much broader lessons on how the construction of our community at large implicates health.  Many of our individual choices and behaviors are heavily mediated by factors beyond our control.  Health care, outreach, and education have benefits that are limited by physical components of our built environment.  Last and certainly not least, these results also reveal the lasting material effects of housing and neighborhood segregation by race and income. 


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