Can a secure home cure poor health?

Posted on December 21, 2009 in Health Debates – Opinion/Comment – Can a secure home cure poor health?
Published On Mon Dec 21 2009.   By Carol Goar Editorial Board

To most Torontonians, the transformation of Regent Park from a troubled social housing enclave into an open, green inner-city neighbourhood is a welcome development. To a few, it is a dubious piece of social engineering.

To James Dunn, who studies the link between housing and health, Regent Park is a living laboratory.

The makeover of Canada’s first and largest public housing complex offers the McMaster University professor a rare opportunity to witness the creation of a safer, better-designed community and monitor its human impact.

Does the crime rate drop? Does employment increase? Do social bonds strengthen? Do chronic disease and mental illness become less prevalent? Do kids stay in school longer? Does poverty decline? Do the gains last?

For decades, social scientists have touted the benefits of addressing non-medical causes of poor health. Now Dunn can test the theory against the reality.

Better yet, he can apply his findings. Toronto Community Housing has asked him to share his observations over the course of the 10-year, $1.5 billion makeover. At each phase of the six-stage process, he will highlight what has worked and what hasn’t. The planners, architects and builders will incorporate his recommendations into subsequent phases.

“I’ve searched the world to learn how housing can contribute to the success of a society,” he says. “In the end, my quest took me to Regent Park.”

Dunn began his research last spring before the first residents moved back into the development. He spoke to them in their temporary quarters about what life was like in the old Regent Park and how they expected it would change.

He will soon begin similar interviews with Phase 2 residents, who are slated to move into their homes in the spring of 2010.

Then he will conduct a second round of interviews with Phase 1 residents to see what they’ve experienced since moving into their new homes, how they feel about their surroundings and whether there have been any detectable changes in their mental or physical health. “I should have my first reading by summer of 2010.”

He hopes to continue collecting data until everyone is rehoused and Regent Park has metamorphosed from a stigmatized social housing project into a mixed income neighbourhood (fewer than half the units will be subsidized) with parks, recreation facilities, a cultural centre and roads that connect it to the rest of the city.

What he anticipates is that living in desirable housing and having a place where they can build an identity, welcome friends and help build a new community will improve residents’ physical and mental health, their collective security and their socio-economic status. But he is open to surprises.

Dunn’s base of operations will be the Centre for Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael’s Hospital. He’ll split his time between its Richmond Street office and McMaster’s campus in Hamilton. (He lives midway between the two sites in Burlington.)

Toronto Community Housing has placed no restrictions on what he can write, say or publish about the project.

Provided his funding – from the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – isn’t cut in midstream, he’ll end up with a motherlode of information that can be used by public housing agencies around the world, health analysts, scholars and policy-makers.

His students will be among the first beneficiaries. But housing professionals around the globe won’t be far behind. Dunn knows of least 100 projects, similar to Regent Park, that are ripe for renewal.

He looks forward to spending the next decade on “the frontiers of human knowledge.”

After that, if all goes well, he’ll have the happy task of explaining how Toronto got it right.

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