With the expansion of light-rail line into St. Paul’s Central Corridor nearing, community organization ISAIAH will be digging into the potential health effects the expansion could have on the people.
ISAIAH was one of ten organizations – out of the more than 200 applicants – to receive grant money from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts to conduct a health impact assessment (HIA).
ISAIAH’s HIA focus on the light-rail extension will be done with specific attention, Phil Steger said, to people of color and lower incomes, who are living to the north and south of University Ave. and in East St. Paul. Steger is the HIA project manager for ISAIAH, a St. Paul community organization.
“The Central Corridor light rail is the largest public investment in infrastructure in the state’s history and will have profound impacts… We are going to want to paint the largest picture as possible,” he said. “It is not meant to send any political message that you didn’t do this right or you’re leaving [people of color and lower incomes] out… [It’s just that] historically these people have been overlooked.”
“[An HIA is] a series of steps that allow people to look at [positive and negative health impacts] and integrate it into the planning and design of a project or policy,” Steger said. “It also provides recommendations so you can maximize the health pros and mitigate the health cons… We think that the HIA can really improve [the City’s already good process] for making sure the central corridor serves community needs.”
“We see a real opportunity to couple research with community organizing in order to empower communities to advocate for their needs within decision-making processes that will impact their lives,” Shireen Malekafzali, senior associate at PolicyLink, said in an email. “We hope the community will see the health impact assessment as a useful tool in evaluating the health outcomes of a project that typically is not looked at from a health perspective.”
Once ISAIAH and the Hmong Organizing Program have determined the scope of the HIA, PolicyLink will collect the data, assemble a findings report, and create a list of recommendations that can be made to various committees and departments of the City of St. Paul.
The use of HIAs is not a new thing, according to Steger. He said they have been used in Europe and Canada, and have popped up occasionally in the U.S. With this new project, he said, HIAs are being brought to the foreground as a useful tool.
“We know they work…there is evidence to support that,” he said. “Now it’s time to get [the idea of HIAs] out there and into people’s minds.”
For example, Steger said, in Los Angeles an HIA was done during the planning stages of a senior citizen high-rise development near a freeway. All the doors and windows faced the freeway and away from the neighborhood. The noise and view of a highly traveled roadway could negatively impact the well-being of the residents. It was recommended that the doors and windows open out to the neighborhood to minimize noise and provide more community setting, among other things.
Steger said the effects of a plan may not be obvious at first glance and the use of an HIA can help address all possible benefits and consequences.
For example, the Rondo community in the corridor is a big concern for many community members who have deep roots in that neighborhood, he said. Those who live in this community are largely African American and lower income, according to Steger, and the new development could have the potential to raise property taxes so that these residents could not afford to stay. This could cause people to uproot, break from their cultural communities and change jobs – all causing stress and impacting their health, according to Steger.
On the other hand, he said, this new development could create more jobs, bring in more money for local businesses and provide more affordable, fast transportation – causing a healthy impact on the community.
“[This assessment will be] for the common good,” Steger said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen…There are going to be benefits, there is no doubt…And as human beings we can plan ahead…[The HIA will help] make sure that we do all we can to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs in terms of [people’s] health.”