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Infrastructural Health Equity and Racial Justice for Youth in New York City Public Schools and Public Spaces

Policy field

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CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy

Physical activity, like healthy food, sleep, and positive social relationships, is a powerful predictor of multiple health benefits, including better mental health, physical health, happiness, and lower health care costs. Yet like many other cities, New York has allowed its schools, parks, and other public places—the infrastructure that enables physical activity—to deteriorate. This is especially true in low-income, Black and Latinx communities, who have experienced a history of limited infrastructural investments. This, coupled with disproportionate exclusionary disciplining policies and policing of select students, has resulted in education and health inequities with long-term consequences for low income, Black, and Latinx students.

New York City leaders have an opportunity to close racial and ethnic gaps in health and well-being, as well as bolster the economic stability of communities of color, making the city a healthier, more equitable place to live, work and play.

New York City’s Youth

Increased physical activity has been linked to better mood, enhanced self-esteem, lower levels of anxiety, decreases in depression, and reduced incidence of chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes—conditions that disproportionately affect communities of color. Yet, only 14% of New York City youth recently reported being active for 60 minutes or more every day. In fact, school surveys show that more youth reported vaping (15%) or drinking alcohol (21%) over the past month than being physically active for at least 60 minutes a day. Surveys also report rising rates of youth mental health issues, psychological distress and emergency department visits due to mental illness. In addition to the personal cost to individuals and their communities, the financial toll of chronic diseases could cost New York City over $1.5 billion every year through 2030.

In examining how best to encourage greater levels of exercise in young people, it was found that a school’s environment determines approximately 50% of young people’s overall physical activity levels—essentially, a safe and clean school environment, with dedicated activity spaces, is a critical factor in young people’s ability to take part in physical activity. However, even though it has been shown that a school’s environment has the potential to significantly harm or improve mental and overall health, there has been a severe lack of dedicated funds towards physical activity and recreation infrastructure improvements in New York City public schools and public spaces—most noticeably in areas that serve communities of color.

Historically, changes to New York City’s infrastructure, such as highway development and neighborhood rezoning, has either damaged or vastly underinvested in the schools and public spaces for communities of color. Lower neighborhood income has been associated with fewer and lower quality nearby parks, creating a lack of public, healthy infrastructure for our youth living in highest poverty. Schools in high-poverty areas tend to lack basic repairs, consistent maintenance, and quality facilities. As well, adding to the troubling state of schools and public spaces, young people of color face challenges in simply accessing the school environment at all—suspensions, expulsions, and referrals prevent more Black children, students with special needs or students with intersectional identities from being physically active or receiving instruction in a classroom or school building.

Recommendations

Young people and students across New York City need safe, accessible, and stable environments in which they have the opportunity to engage in physical activity—this outlet could greatly boost their physical and mental health, and begin to address the history of underinvestment and over policing in their communities. New York City’s leaders should capitalize on this opportunity to:

Invest in Parks and Public Spaces. The Trust for Public Land created the NYC Park Equity Plan (2021) outlining the inequities in New York City public parks and tools like the Heat Vulnerability index show where populations are vulnerable to extreme heat. Their equity plan highlights recommendations to bring 100% of New York City residents with a 10-minute walk to a park. They suggest almost doubling the current New York City parks operating budget to support the staffing, programming, and maintenance needs of current and new parks. The NYC Community Parks Initiative is an example of strategic capital investments in parks that have been ignored for decades through equitable targeted improvements and community input.

Fund Healthy Physical Environments in Schools. New York State lawmakers including New York State Senate Committee on Education and the New York City Council Committee on Education should advocate for Fair Student Funding to go towards healthy environment improvements, including designated spaces for physical activity. In addition, they should coordinate healthy school enhancements with energy improvements funding allocated for New York City public school facilities through Build Back Better School Infrastructure grant funds.

Nurture our Marginalized Students. Funding programs that aim to heal and protect students like Restorative Justice or Trauma-Centered Schools will center the well-being of our students and consider the whole child. This means equipping schools with the right ratio of nurses (between 1:225, or 1:750 depending on the needs of the student population) and counselors (1:250) to students. Instituting programs that mandate adults care for our students and tracking the progress is critical in keeping our students engaged and safe in schools.

With these steps, real progress can be made towards reversing the decline in physical activity in young people, and better protect the health and wellbeing of all New Yorkers.