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A public housing project where healthy living is the foundation

July 7, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
In downtown Denver, a recently built public housing project is designed to foster healthy living, with access to nutritious food, access to doctors and ease of exercise. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: an experiment in rethinking public housing that encourages healthier living by changing the larger environment for residents.

Jeffrey Brown reports from Denver.

JEFFREY BROWN: At age 71, Noel Taylor says she’s become more active and health-conscious than ever before.

NOEL TAYLOR, Mariposa Resident: Every year, I improve my diet, I improve my exercise.

JEFFREY BROWN: Her change in behavior didn’t happen by accident. Four years ago, here in downtown Denver, Taylor joined an experiment in making healthy living part of the design and daily life of a public housing project. Among the amenities here, access to a garden plot.

NOEL TAYLOR: I noticed, all summer long, I was getting healthier. The more of my own vegetables I was eating, the more energy I had. It’s made a huge difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this sounds all too good to be true.

NOEL TAYLOR: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: And there’s more.

The Denver Botanic Gardens hosts a farmers market giving away free produce to residents.

WOMAN: We’re going to talk about how to shop healthy on a budget.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another group offers classes on healthy recipes and shopping.

MAN: Now we will take your blood pressure.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a clinic on the ground floor of one building, public health physicians schedule regular visits to do routine checkups. There’s a light rail stop, both for easy transportation and to get residents out of their cars.

MAN: Do the other side now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Plus, bike rentals and a nearby shop to teach kids how to maintain their bikes.

Even the architecture and public art was designed to encourage residents to get outside and take a walk.

ISMAEL GUERRERO, Denver Housing Authority: We really wanted this to look like a neighborhood, not a development.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ismael Guerrero, director of the Denver Housing Authority, says that, 10 years ago, this was a high-crime neighborhood, with 250 units of rundown public housing. Something had to be done.

ISMAEL GUERRERO: What we learned in early conversations with residents in particular was, they didn’t just want a new unit to move into. They wanted a better quality of life. So we really started expanding our perspective on what we were trying to accomplish here.

JEFFREY BROWN: The result completed earlier this summer is the Mariposa development, a mixture of 800 apartments and town homes, one-third public housing, a third subsidized, and a third rented at market value. The overall cost was $150 million; $60 million came from federal, state and local government programs, with the rest coming through private investment.

Already, Mariposa is becoming a model for rethinking public housing.

ISMAEL GUERRERO: Part of it is physical health, and part of it is what we call neighborhood health. Right? How healthy is the place? Is it safe? Are there healthy activities for you to do? Is there healthy food in the neighborhood for you to go and eat? Is there a healthy economy where people can get jobs and start a business?

JEFFREY BROWN: The Osage Cafe, located in one of the apartment buildings, is designed to meet some of those needs. In addition to the food, it provides culinary training and internships for young people in the neighborhood, like 20-year-old Israel Trejo.

ISRAEL TREJO: And I think that’s where I discovered I had a passion for cooking.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did it give you?

ISRAEL TREJO: It gave me the entire world, basically. Like, with the skills that I have learned now, I could go anywhere. I could go be anything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Trejo now has a job at one of Denver’s top restaurants, and plans to operate his own food truck soon.

ANGELA RODRIGUEZ, Mariposa Resident: Are you looking forward to helping me grow some fruits and vegetables?

JEFFREY BROWN: Angela Rodriguez, a single mother of two teens, dreams of one day buying her own home. She has a full-time job at a nearby community college, but Denver’s booming housing market makes ownership difficult.

She lives in a subsidized town home at Mariposa, which she says is very different from the old-style projects she grew up in nearby.

ANGELA RODRIGUEZ: As a new style of public housing, it did take me a little bit of time for the adjustment. When new tenants are mingling with other tenants that come from different walks of life, it’s helping us to develop into new perspectives of modern living.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rodriguez uses public transportation, has taken up gardening, and has fully embraced the culture of health that is promoted here.

But is Mariposa working? It’s too early for definitive answers. According to a 2015 study by the Denver Public Health Department, about half the residents had participated in health-related activities over the previous three years.

But the study also showed the amount of exercise residents pursued had changed little. Just over a third said they exercised five times a week. About the same amount said they exercised one to four times a week, and 26 percent said they rarely or never exercised.

Smoking rates decreased, but only slightly, from 30 percent of residents down to 24 percent. And these so-called active staircases, designed with a bit of whimsy…

ISMAEL GUERRERO: It’s a way to engage kids, and actually now the adults enjoy it.

JEFFREY BROWN: … to lure residents away from using the elevator. Well, so far, they’re not having a big impact.

THERESA MICKIEWICZ, Denver Public Health: We actually did observational counts, where we sat there and we counted people who used the stairs vs. people who used the elevator, and we compared it against a control staircase in the Mariposa redevelopment, and we found absolutely no difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: Theresa Mickiewicz, an epidemiologist with Denver Public Health, is overseeing a study of the development. And while major improvements in health remain to be seen, she believes something important is happening here, and she expects the numbers to reflect that soon.

THERESA MICKIEWICZ: While maintaining my objectivity as an evaluator, do I think that there is value in this type of project? I would say yes. Individually, these components have been shown in the evidence, in literature, to improve health outcomes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The city of Denver is so confident in this new model, it’s about to embark on a similar development that will be three times larger than Mariposa. That construction is expected to begin later next year.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown, reporting from Denver.

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