NIH awards CUNY SPH team $6.7 million to design park-based strategies to improve mental well-being

Sep. 27, 2022
people running in East River Park

New York, NY — Public parks play a vital role in fostering community engagement and supporting the well-being of nearby residents, but their impact depends not only on the physical but also the social dimensions, such as perceived safety and availability of community programming.

The National Institutes of Health has awarded a team of researchers from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy (CUNY SPH) a five-year, $6.7 million grant to design and implement programmatic strategies to enhance the social environment of neighborhoods by leveraging newly renovated public parks in low-income New York City neighborhoods.

In New York City, as part of the equity-based Community Parks Initiative, 64 neighborhood parks in low-income communities with a high concentration of Black and Latino residents have been redesigned and renovated since 2017, providing a unique opportunity to work with neighborhood and city partners in a community-engaged, community-level intervention to leverage the new park facilities to enhance the social dimension of these neighborhoods, as a way to improve community-level health outcomes.

The researchers, led by CUNY SPH Professor Terry T-K Huang, will conduct a hybrid effectiveness-implementation randomized stepped wedge trial in eight neighborhoods to determine the impact on community-level health-related quality of life and mental health of a community-engaged intervention that enables local stakeholders to design and implement programmatic strategies in the newly renovated parks.

The team will employ human-centered design (HCD), a process methodology for problem-solving and innovation, in an asset-based approach to collaborating with local partners. Specifically, each community will design one primarily physical activity strategy that promotes reach and inclusive participation among adults and one primarily social strategy—such as music, outdoor market, park beautification groups—that enhances social interaction and relationships. Unlike past research in public health, the research team will not prescribe the specific park-based activities; rather, the community will have the opportunity to design them based on what fits with the local context. The research team will provide each community financial resources and core services on formative research, design, and rapid prototyping and testing.

Marrying HCD with community engagement will result in community-owned park strategies that align with true community-identified values, needs and assets and improve the social infrastructure of neighborhoods, the researchers say, leading to sustained health impact and reduce health disparities at the community level.

“Parks are critical for neighborhood engagement and vibrancy, which in turn contribute to community well-being,” says Dr. Huang. “This study is significant both conceptually and methodologically. It pushes health disparities research from being community-participatory to community-centered, where the solutions are community-driven and based on authentic community needs, values and culture. We will also be able to empirically test, for the first time, the impact of HCD as a process for community-driven innovation on community-level health outcomes. We will learn a lot about new ways to engage communities and how to implement an asset- rather than deficit-based approach to improving population health and reducing health disparities.”

Findings from this study will help inform sustainable community health and development models, shape park-based programs and policies in NYC and nationally, and contribute to reducing health disparities, the researchers say.

“This NIH grant is one of the largest awards received by CUNY SPH,” CUNY SPH Dean Ayman El-Mohandes notes. “The project showcases the school’s position as an innovative leader in health disparities research and in creating community systems change.”

The grant supporting this project is awarded by the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities, National Institutes of Health (R01MD018209). 

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Ariana Costakes
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The CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy (CUNY SPH) is committed to promoting and sustaining healthier populations in New York City and around the world through excellence in education, research and service in public health and by advocating for sound policy and practice to advance social justice and improve health outcomes for all.