Innovation Ecosystem

Greening urban spaces as a prevention strategy for intimate partner violence

How Newport has become the city in Rhode Island with the greatest opportunity to reshape its future landscape, with residents participating at the table, thanks to a HEZ

Photo by Richard Asinof

“Gates on Bellevue Avenue,” an image of a water color painting by Richard Grosvenor, an image from his book, Newport: An artist’s impressions of its architecture and history. The North End of Newport has roughly a 7 percent tree canopy, compared with 49 percent for the rest of Newport, according to a data analysis by the Newport HEZ.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/15/20
The Newport HEZ is exploring prevention strategies related to intimate partner violence by creating new opportunities for greening open space, a need magnified by the coronavirus pandemic and new planned developments in Newport’s North End.
What kinds of convergence and connections and conversations need to happen around preventing intimate partner violence in a time of great economic disruption caused by the pandemic? What are the opportunities for residents to participate in budget decisions around health care? How will the conversations and protests around “black lives matter” change corporate culture in Rhode Island? Will we see a renewed interest in gardening as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? Will Gov. Gina Raimondo announce budget plans to make new investments in Health Equity Zones in Rhode Island?
Years ago, at a planning meeting about whether or not to cut down trees along the narrow street on which I lived in Montague, a town planner began by making the argument that the street was too narrow and the trees, many more than 100 years old, were making it difficult to navigate a curve on the elbow-shaped street, and there was a need to straighten the road. An elderly neighbor responded by saying: My car has a steering wheel and it can turn.
The planner responded by saying that many of the trees, maples, were in danger of becoming diseased and would probably not live very much longer. It would be safer if they were cut down now. My elderly neighbor responded: I guess you can say the same about me, too. That effectively ended the plans to cut down some 15 large trees along the street.
As we begin to make the connections between community engagement, open public space, domestic violence, economic, health and social disparities as a function of access to opportunity and education, perhaps the biggest problem we face is learning how to listen to what is being said. The opportunity to be heard – and listened to – is often made more difficult by efforts to control the conversation and the flow of information.

NEWPORT – With the Newport Folk and the Newport Jazz festivals canceled for this summer because of COVID-19 concerns, with many of the traditional summer tourist activities threatened by abrupt changes in travel plans in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the City by the Sea is facing a difficult summer in 2020 when it comes to potential revenue and job losses.

Newport is a city that is also on the verge of major land use changes, with two developments underway that will redefine the landscape in the North End – the 30-acre realignment of the Claiborne Pell Bridge ramp, and the redevelopment of the now vacant Newport Grand casino property, which was purchased by the Carpionato group in 2018 for $10.15 million.

At the same time, the Women’s Resource Center, the backbone agency for the Newport Health Equity Zone, has begun work at what has been identified as a major problem in connection to intimate partnership violence – the lack of tree canopy in the North End, working a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop community-led strategies as part of a prevention campaign.

In addition, the community has been the renewed focus in the potential development of Rhode Island’s blue economy, determined by Commerce RI’s recent Rhode Innovates 2.0 strategic plan to be a key driver of new jobs in the state’s future innovation economy.

Translated, Newport is the community in Rhode Island where many of the collisions around issues of wealth and poverty, development and gentrification, climate change threats and environmental justice, domestic violence and health equity have seemingly merged into one large, engaged community conversation.

The problem is that many folks, even in Newport, are unaware of the ongoing conversation and its ramifications.

ConvergenceRI recently spoke with Cynthia Roberts of the R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and with Sydney Ormerod of the Women's Resource Center, strategy manager for the Newport HEZ, to gain a better understanding of how all the ongoing efforts might connect.

Framing the conversation
For those who attended the stakeholder meeting hosted by the Rhode Island Foundation in February of this year to discuss the long-term health plan, you may recall that one of the presentations around health equity in action in the afternoon Chautauqua featured Cynthia Roberts from the R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Roberts serves as the empowerment evaluator for all programs at the R.I. Coalition against Domestic Violence as well as providing empowerment evaluation support for the Newport Health Equity Zone.

As reported by ConvergenceRI, Roberts told the stakeholders: “The greening urban strategy that the Newport Health Equity Zone is engaged in, in partnership with R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Women’s Resource Center, which is the backbone agency of the Newport HEZ, reflects long-standing work on primary partners violence for the last 16 years.

“Open space had been a big priority identified [in the community needs assessment] but there was no funding. When the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with a new funding [proposal] and said that we’re moving upstream, it created an opportunity for the work involved with preventing intimate partner violence by greening urban spaces.

“Because Newport was ready to do this work, because of all of the [community] infrastructure that has been developed through the Newport Health Equity Zone.

“[The research shows] that greening urban spaces is so important in preventing violence and decreasing violent crimes.
[See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Will the health care industry willingly relinquish its economic power?”]

Roberts’ message had been reinforced by the presentation given by Shaun O’Rourke, director of Stormwater and Resiliency at the R.I. Infrastructure Bank. O’Rourke is responsible for developing Resilient Rhody, the state’s first climate resilience action strategy.

As reported by ConvergenceRI, O’Rourke told the assembled stakeholders: “This is exactly the room and the audience that we need to be engaging with on linking public health and health equity and climate change.

“[In developing our initial plan], we held 10 workshops across the state. We expected to hear about the needs around roads and bridges; what we heard was about how people [were] at the core of building healthy, strong and resilient communities.

“As a result, we shifted the way we framed our strategy. Climate change is a threat multiplier, [creating] stresses to already vulnerable systems and communities.

“[Increasing] tree and canopy covers is one of the tangible ways that we are linking [lack of] wealth and lack of access to public, open spaces. Tree coverage is a proxy for wealth and communities of color. Trees grow on money. Open space and parks are really a tier one climate change and public health investment.”

Newport has become one of the first cities in Rhode Island, then, to become a “collision” point where the forces of development, gentrification, intimate partner violence, wealth, racial and health inequities intersect, connect and converge.

The overarching question is: how can the community participate in the decision-making process and make its voices known – and heard, as part of the process.

“The North End was identified for a long time as an area for an opportunity for development,” said Patricia Reynolds, the city’s director of planning and economic development, as reported by ecoRI News in March, headlined: “Gentrification concerns surround North End development.” According to Reynolds, when the proposal came forward from the developer for the casino site, the City Council thought it would be a good time to review how we wanted development in the North End to come about.

In an effort to engage with North End residents about what their vision for their neighborhoods should include, the city hired NBBJ, a global architecture, planning, and design firm with an office in Boston, to conduct interviews and hold meetings, according to the story in ecoRI News.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Roberts and Ormerod.

ConvergenceRI: Much of the good work being done by Health Equity Zones has been around establishing community needs assessments, building awareness and data around issues that haven’t always been “visible.” Can you talk about the process by which you came to highlight the need around domestic violence and the way the data connected you to the need for an increased tree canopy?
Thank you so much for asking. It is such a great question. And I want to say Sydney and I – and our colleagues at the Coalition – are really excited that you want to talk with us. It gives us a chance to talk about the issues “outside of the choir,” to help us think about the way we communicate with people who are not already doing this work, and the way the needs assessment process fits in with how we identified greening urban spaces as a focus.

The R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence is an ongoing recipient of a Delta Impact grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of 10 groups nationwide that have been funded to work on primary prevention of intimate partner violence.

The CDC, in its initial funding of Delta Impact grants, promoted very open-ended approaches to primary prevention of intimate partner violence, because they were really building an early evidence base [to support the work].

And, it is still an early evidence base, because there is not a ton of science infrastructure in this field, as compared to tobacco control.

In 2018, when the CDC put out its [RFP] for continued funding through the Delta program, it said they only wanted states to do strategies that fell under certain buckets, and one of those buckets was creating protective environments. …And one of those strategies was green urban spaces.

We knew that when we applied, we had certain buckets of work that matched very well with what the CDC was leading us to do. I would say that Rhode Island is very lucky in that way, because the R.I. Department of Health focuses on health equity.

The Newport HEZ is now in its fifth year of funding, and the first round of its community needs assessment, conducted four years ago, identified open spaces as a very important social determinant of health to be working on. [As a result], the Newport HEZ has had an open-space working group for years.

It was a great alignment of the stars when the CDC grant announcement came out, and one of the strategies they wanted to fund was greening urban spaces, and the Newport HEZ was ready to go to implement that strategy.

And I think that’s a reason why Rhode Island is one of only two states that is now being funded to implement a green urban spaces prevention strategy for intimate partner violence. The other state is Michigan.

It was not only because Rhode Island was “poised” to do this work, it was also because of the [leadership of the] Women’s Resource Center in Newport, a long-standing partner and member of the Coalition.

ConvergenceRI: Without getting too much into the weeds, can you explain how you plan to bridge the gap between the focus on preventing intimate partner violence and new plans for development in Newport? When I attended the opening celebration of a new business incubator, Innovate Newport, for instance, greening urban spaces did not appear to be on the radar screen. It seems that the issues you are raising often appear to be “invisible.” How do you plan to get on the radar screen of decision makers?
That’s a great question again. Thank you.

When we applied for the funding, we identified a few key data pieces related to our strategy, in looking at the difference of tree canopy in the North End and Broadway sections of Newport compared with the rest of Newport.

About 7 percent of the North End and Broadway is tree canopied. For the rest of Newport, the tree canopy is about 49 percent.

That was part of the analysis that the Women’s Resource Center did when it first applied to become a Health Equity Zone backbone agency, and its focus on the North End and Broadway, two census tracts within the city, that experience the greatest amount of health disparities and other kinds of disparities.

The other part you asked about, about how to get on the radar of decision-makers, that’s a really great question.

A key component of the greening urban spaces strategy is civic engagement around planning. Our open-space working group is now called the “greening urban spaces” working group. It has a number of professionals on it, partners who are engaged in the work, such as the Aquidneck Land Trust and Bike Newport. The different partners each have different expertise, helping to facilitate learning.

A big part of the civic engagement strategy, and honestly, the learning process of the workgroup, is to keep up the flow of information, which is often very technical and very complex, and fast-moving – what’s being developed in Newport, who’s doing the development, and access to all the documents associated with planning board meetings.

One recent development [in the process of community engagement] was the hiring of [Peter Friedrichs] as Newport city planner, who previously served was the director of planning and economic development in Central Falls. He is well versed on Central Falls’ Green and Complete Streets Ordinance, [the first of its kind in New England, signed into law in 2018.] He is a skilled advocate for greening and for civic engagement, and he has been a great partner work with the Newport Health Equity Zone to try and get residents around the table.

The city has also brought in an outside consulting group from Boston, NBBJ, to assist on work being done on the North End urban plan. They had been holding many workshops and charrettes, encouraging residents to come and to talk about what they would like to see in future developments. Those meetings were happening and then COVID-19 came upon us. The conversations moved to an online forum.

ORMEROD: The good thing about the HEZ and the consultants that the city has hired regarding the North End plan is that we’ve been able to create this great relationship, one that allows us to be really free with them and tell them that yes, you’re having workshops in town, but you should also be coming to the North End and be having those conversations there, versus residents going to City Hall or the Library. Sometimes those places can be very intimidating to people.

We’ve also been helping residents turn their concerns and ideas into talking points when they appear before the planning board.

ConvergenceRI: Years ago, when I once lived in Newport, one of the stories I heard, I do not know whether it was apocryphal or not, was that many of the workers at the mansions often took clippings of the plants and brought them home and cultivated them, a kind of bottom-up innovative approach to building out a canopy.
Creating a tree canopy is a more future-oriented measure. While our goal is to increase the tree canopy is a possible measure, based on our planning that occurred with residents, as part of our ever unfolding needs assessment, there were three more short-term projects that were determined to be a priority.

The first was opening and beautifying Miantonomi Park in the North End. The second was to help residents engage and have significant input in plans for the Pell Bridge realignment. The third was to increase the access for bikes to use on public housing land.

When looking at tree canopy as a measure of equity, and knowing that these areas do no have an equitable tree canopy, that may be an eventual strategy. But it is more about how it fits into a strategy of open space and what residents want to happen now.

ConvergenceRI: How do those short-term strategies create a bottom-up approach for innovation directed by residents?
In bottom-up fashion, we are working on the bridge realignment. We want a say in these things. We want access to bicycles, we want new trails, enjoyable trails.

This is a response to what is happening in the context of the casino being purchased and being up for redevelopment. Residents know that they want to have a stake in what happens. It is all connected to gentrification. Once you beautify and activate the green spaces in the area, that’s when other people will move in who have more resources.

During this time, we’ve developed a really good relationship with the Newport Arboretum. So, even if it is not our number-one priority that we have been working on, with the Arboretum, we’ve been able to do tree-planting events, planting trees around the neighborhoods.

It is going to take a really long time for those trees to grow, so between now and then, there are emerging things that are happening. In doing these tree plantings, we are not going to see any of the indicators going to change until the trees are fully grown, and that can be years from now.

ConvergenceRI: How has the issues of addressing intimate partner violence and domestic violence in a time of forced shutdowns changed your strategies?
There has been a shift in all of our work recently focused on prevention. All of our colleagues have seen a shift in struggling with the immediate needs of families and communities in crisis.

There are specific COVID-19 challenges, and a dialogue around how our approaches have to pivot and say, how do we meet the emergency needs while be balance that with planning for the future. It requires us to be very agile in our work.

Checking in on people during times of social distancing, to see how they are doing, asking questions.

One of the concerns is about access to green spaces right now, during COVID-19, whether it is around transportation to get to the beaches or the parks or an outside walking area. Bike Newport has really pivoted in its work, being guided by the needs and the considerations with COVID-19 regulations, offering access to young people being served by the Newport Equity Zone.

ORMEROD: The Newport HEZ has already seen a connection around the very things we do around food, transportation, open space, and intimate partner violence. During this time of COVID-19, everything has been heightened to another level. At the same time, we developed new connections.


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