Place Matters

Jun 22, 2012

In New Orleans, life expectancy varies by as much as 25 years depending on the zip code.  Living just a few miles away constitutes the difference in as much as 25 years.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Orleans Parish PLACE MATTERS Team recently released the report, “PLACE MATTERS for Health in Orleans Parish: Ensuring Opportunities for Good Health for All.” The report “provides a comprehensive analysis of the range of social, economic, and environmental conditions in Orleans Parish and documents their relationships to the health status of the Parish’s residents.”

The 34-page study finds that social, economic, and environmental conditions in particular neighborhoods significantly erode those residents’ quality of life and longevity. Not having a car, overcrowded and blighted housing, violence, limited educational opportunities and inaccessibility to fresh foods dredge an incredible hole that depresses entire neighborhoods. The study’s most startling finding of a 25-year difference in life expectancy, concretizes what’s ultimately at stake in the City’s recovery efforts. 

While disheartened, most people are not surprised by the differences in mortality rates.  We have come to accept that neighborhoods with higher percentages of people of color and poverty are exposed to community-level risk factors that predict dire health outcomes. We also accept the notion that individuals must climb themselves out of their personal situations. Supposedly, it’s solely a personal choice to live in a particular neighborhood, which has or does not have certain life sustaining amenities. Consequently, people recklessly spout theories of individual responsibility and cultural depravity.

What’s terrible about these shock-jock perspectives is the idea that we’re supposed to believe that every single person who lives durably within certain endangered neighborhoods choose to anchor themselves and their families in places that are fraught with stress, disease, violent crime and substandard housing.

These meager ideas lack the acknowledgement that many of us have a great deal of neighborhood privilege that is maintained at expense of others who do not.  Living a few miles away should never mean the difference in 25 years.  Further, our moral obligations to our neighbors are not limited to people whom literally live next door. The wideness and severity of the gaps mean that our social systems are contributing. We have no choice but to go “upstream” to necessitate policy changes that impact whole neighborhoods.

But those policy changes shouldn’t encourage us to gentrify our way out of our problems.  Some cities tout their neighborhood revitalization efforts in spite of a significant change in population.  Improvement by replacement is not real development.  Nor should we wait until folks get their so call cultural acts together to bring essential services and businesses to economically depressed communities. 

City blocks have always divided neighborhoods, but they should never cut off a lifetime.  To learn more about this report or how you can help, go to