The Significance of Place

Hiwot is part of team working with Durham Parks and Recreation to deliver a transportation curriculum that promotes active transit among local youth. 

If you had asked me at 5 years old what I thought I’d be doing at this point in my life I probably would’ve told you I was going to be a spy (for my CIA agent reading this, I’m flexible and open to new opportunities!). Not sure what happened between then and now but that is clearly not where I ended up. Instead, I am living out Leslie Knope’s dreams, yes that Leslie Knope, expending every effort towards ensuring equitable access to parks. A lot less action-oriented than being a spy, but a cause that I have found to become my “why” in life.

So how did we get here? I used to tell everyone this great “park-awakening” started while taking a class as an undergraduate, but my mother recently sent me a baby picture that suggests otherwise. Unsolicited baby picture below:

My childhood home was directly across the street from a neighborhood park. I mean walk-20-steps-from-my-front-door-and-we-are-on-the-slide kind of proximity to the park. I have a lot of childhood memories associated with this place. It’s where I first learned to ride a bike. Where I first learned to jump off a swing (and then quickly learn why we don’t jump off swings). Where I faceplanted off a curb and got a rock lodged in my forehead, earning myself a lifelong scar. Where I created my first friendships. But most relevant to piece, it’s my earliest memory of attaching significance to a place that was not home.

Fast forward to this undergrad class I alluded to, l found myself revisiting this idea of place. The class was a systems-thinking course that centered on wholistic approaches to confronting “wicked” problems, ones without seemingly straightforward solutions. We were tasked with “solving” Tampa’s bus system. Yes, I know, a lot to unpack there, but nonetheless, we failed. Spectacularly. I mean no kidding, people dedicate their careers streamlining transportation systems, who were we to think in 15 weeks we could even gather sufficient knowledge to identify gaps, let alone solve the whole thing. The big pickle about Tampa’s transit system, or I guess fundamentally any public good, is that you need to demonstrate demand to justify spending money to improve it. Unfortunately, Tampa’s transit system as it stands is not the greatest; therefore. it’s difficult to create demand if people have adapted to ways to live without it. Not the answer I was hoping for as a high-strung, overachieving junior in need of instant gratification.

So, naturally, I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about ways we could increase demand. It was while sitting in standstill rush hour-traffic on Bruce B Downs blvd, 30 minutes into what should’ve been an 8-minute trip, when it occurred to me the health implications of this period of chronic stress we underwent daily. A few thought digressions later, I landed to the fundamental question of how place is related to health. More specifically, how can we leverage population health as the fundamental driver of how public goods are allocated and the practical application of this to eliminate health disparities across groups that have been economically/socially marginalized. This notion is realistically more reflective of the ultimate question that underlies the entirety of my personal and professional endeavors, and one that I chose to apply to parks — where I first found solace in place.

Studies across the United States have demonstrated equity to parks and other greenspaces as an issue of environmental injustice. To borrow language from Dr. Sharelle Barber, “insidious” polices, such as redlining, have left race and ethnic minority communities – communities in which I belong in – systemically deprived from health promoting spaces, such as parks. This is compounded by disparities we know to exist in healthcare quality and access that serve to disadvantage these same groups. As a public good, parks, in my opinion, have the potential to disrupt these cycles of deprivation among our communities. However, in line with systems approaches, these processes are more complex than they appear. It is not just a matter of providing parks as provisions to communities, it’s the considerations about whether these spaces are accessible that are equally, if not more so, important.

To that end, I bring you the project that will be the subject of my subsequent blog posts: Going Places. This is a project led by Dr. Emily D’Agostino here at Duke University, in collaboration with community partner, Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR), with the overall aim of reducing transportation barriers related to access and usage of recreational spaces among youth here in Durham. We are working with DPR staff, youth, and parents to deliver a transportation toolkit that will promote transportation efficacy among youth so that they can safely navigate to health-promoting spaces, such as parks. I am humbled to be involved with a truly experienced and passionate team on a cause that I believe is critical if we as a nation are to achieve health equity.

To my 5-year-old self: I may not be a spy, but still a public servant. Here’s to affording more generations the opportunity to find their place.

Hiwot Zewdie is currently a 2nd year master’s student pursuing a Global Health degree from Duke Global Health Institute and a Geospatial Analysis certificate from the Nicholas School of the Environment. Her interests include elucidating the mechanisms by which neighborhoods foster health and applying this evidence to develop placed-based interventions that serve to mitigate current and future health inequities. Hiwot’s academic research explores these questions in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Miami, FL, and Durham, NC, including a Bass Connection Student Award assessing park equity and health. She received a B.Sc. in Cell & Molecular Biology and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of South Florida.

All posts by