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Striving for Health in All Policies and Health Equity in Richmond, CA and Globally

Jason Corburn Presents at Urban Health Collaborative Invited Speaker Series

Jason Corburn speaks about health equity at an Urban Health Collaborative Invited Speaker Series event.

March 27, 2017

When Professor Jason Corburn, PhD, MCP, gives his lecture, “Cities for Life: Transforming Urban Institutions for Health Equity,” he brings to his presentation not just talk – but direct experience in applying ideas and principles for change in the real world, to help real people.

Corburn is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, jointly appointed in the Department of City & Regional Planning and the School of Public Health. He directs Berkeley's Institute of Urban and Regional Development, the joint Master of City Planning (MCP) and Master of Public Health (MPH) degree program and leads the Center for Global Healthy Cities.

His recent Invited Speaker presentation at the Drexel Urban Health Collaborative provided a glimpse of what it takes to improve the health status of the poor, from Richmond, CA to Medillin, Colombia.

Richmond is an economically depressed city of 106,000, located 16 miles northeast of San Francisco. Best known for its unique role during World War II, in the 1940s Richmond was the most productive shipbuilding center in the nation, and home to four Kaiser shipyards.

Armed initially with a small, $150,000 grant from the California Endowment and working closely with community residents, Jason Corburn implemented a “targeted universalism” intervention, that focused on a section of Richmond most in need of support: an area called the “iron triangle,” walled in by railroad tracks on three sides that was home to 30,000 residents, 99 percent of them African American and Latino and all of them poor.

A first project was reclaiming park spaces, so that kids wouldn’t play in the streets. An unused tennis court became a soccer field; abandoned lots were turned into community spaces. Other innovations followed: among them, the Richmond BUILD jobs program, for youth and the formerly incarcerated; an initiative to install solar panels on homes of low income families which resulted in savings of at least $900 a year per household.

Another emerging and controversial strategy transitioned violence prevention to a community effort from a police-driven, law enforcement function, by creating an Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS). Eventually, on a $3 million budget, the ONS program even hired former felons – including murderers – to be neighborhood “change agents.” It worked: one outcome is that the annual murder rate in Richmond have declined from 42 to 11 per 100,000 people.

This community level work enabled Corburn to help draft and get adopted the nation’s first municipal Health in All Policies Ordinance, in Richmond, and he continues to work in cities around the world to ensure health equity is integrated into all decision making.

Corburn uses the Colombian city Medellin as a global example of transformation: once the most violent city in the world, he says it is now hailed as a “shining example of urban health.” He attributes the change to ending corruption, by electing local mayors rather than appointing them, and to careful long range planning to guide policy and action at federal and local levels.

The Medellin example underlines the same point made by the Richmond experience. “You can invest in a different way in cities – prioritizing communities that are suffering the most,” says Corburn. Rather than gentrification, this approach will result in leveraging resources to help regular people to thrive, a principle at the heart of the concept of health equity.

His best advice on how to make meaningful, equitable change happen in poor underserved communities is to get started somewhere – in partnership with others – to do things, and stop “just analyzing.”

“Build collaborations that can build toward change and don’t wait until we have all the answers to act,” Corburn says. “The problems are too urgent for us to do that.”

Learn more about Jason Corburn’s work