By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
The health benefits of safer streets

WHAT DO you know about U.S. Census tract 13051003301? By looking at its boundaries I learned it's home to a portion of the historic Carver Village neighborhood.

Thanks to Georgia Healthy Cities (, I discovered 13051003301 is also home to the highest prevalence of diabetes in Savannah. An estimated 23.7 percent of residents are diagnosed with diabetes, boosting it into the top 1 percent of Census tracts for diabetes among the 500 largest U.S. cities.

Tract 13051003301’s dubious diabetes distinction was easy to ascertain using the “Savannah Story Map and 5 High Health Risks” feature on the GHC website, which is part of a new project that, “exists to help communities better understand how their neighborhoods impact their health—and what local-level changes can help improve their health outcomes.”

Along with diabetes and complications, the website allows visitors to peer into Savannah neighborhoods and see rates for stroke, respiratory disease, and poor and low sleep. The differences between neighborhoods — even some that are adjacent to each other — can be jarring.

In describing 13051003301’s diabetes rate, the Georgia Healthy Cities website explains, “Nearby, two census tracts are estimated to have fewer than 6 percent of residents with the disease. The great disparity for residents just a few miles away from each other is an illustration of health inequity. It may be that seemingly small differences between these neighborhoods, such as the presence or absence of safe crosswalks, are related to health outcomes. It may also be that the city’s past has shaped where different people live, thereby creating clusters of residents who are at higher risk for developing the disease.”

Lizann Roberts, executive director of the Coastal Georgia Indicators Coalition, sees significant potential in the tools provided by the project, which is also focusing on Albany, Atlanta, and Columbus.

“This data will help coalition partners and the community to investigate the underlying causes of disparities in the data and collectively create a strategy to address them,” she said.

“For instance, the GHC data shows that Savannah is No. 433 out of 500 cities in the data set for overall health. We will examine the factors and through cross-collaboration among partners, create viable, sustainable solutions. Even on an individual level, organizations can see where they can focus their attention to the areas of highest need.” 

- photo by

The project is supported by the Urban Institute through funds provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and focuses on social determinates of health, five factors that influence health and well-being: economic stability, education, social and community, health and healthcare, and neighborhood and the built environment.

The last of these has been the topic of increasingly intensive research. The headline of a New York Times story from earlier this year, “Writing Prescriptions to Play Outdoors,” encapsulates the connection between where we live and how it affects our health.

But simply going outside for a walk may not be a viable proposition for those who live on one of the more than 70 percent of Savannah streets that do not have sidewalks. Or for those who live in an area where speeding and traffic crashes are common.

The GHC project should help clarify the relationship between neighborhoods, in which residents would be unable to safely comply with a doctor’s prescription for exercise because of problems with the built environment, and higher rates of chronic diseases.

“We can feature communities with the highest rates of diabetes, or zip codes with the greatest concentration of hypertension and stroke,” Roberts said.

“The public can also see where various amenities in Savannah are located, such as green space and fitness facilities. Our hope is that skillful use of the data will draw the public to ask the question, why and what does the data indicate? Policymakers can then work with the community to address those questions to provide insight into underlying causes and create a culture of health for all.”

In my work I hear from people who live in Census tracts all over town including 13051004211 (Windsor Forest), 13051001500 (East Victorian District), and 13051011600 (Hudson Hill) who want to reclaim neighborhood streets from speeding and aggressive driving, and make them safe places for people.

The primary goal of these efforts is reducing traffic crashes, especially those that involve people who walk, use wheelchairs and other assistive devices, or ride bikes. Now, however, residents can identify additional benefits that could be derived from neighborhood safety projects.

In addition to decreasing traffic-related injuries and deaths, better health outcomes provide more justification for implementation.

In that way, safer streets are wonder drugs. They reduce the traumatic injuries that are caused by traffic crashes and at the same time attack chronic conditions. It’s hard to imagine a wiser investment.