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Researchers Build Community Power to Influence Health in Gentrifying Neighborhoods

August 16, 2023

By Reann Gibson


This article was originally published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on June 6, 2023 and can be accessed here: Researchers Build Community Power to Influence Health in Gentrifying Neighborhoods (rwjf.org). This post has been cross-posted with permission by the author.


When community members can unite to shape the future of their neighborhood to reflect their collective vision and their priorities, culture, and values, this builds community power. Unfortunately, too many are excluded from visioning and decision-making regarding changes happening in their own neighborhoods. This is especially true in Black and Brown neighborhoods experiencing gentrifying development. In fact, new research from the Healthy Neighborhoods Study (HNS) finds that better physical and mental health, and higher levels of happiness, are linked to residents reporting higher levels of “ownership of change” in their neighborhoods.

The study’s resident researchers, adult and teen residents of HNS communities who are formally trained to do research, and grassroots partners knew from years of organizing in gentrifying neighborhoods that when it comes to creating a healthy community, it’s not just what is built that matters for health, it’s who has control over what is built—and who benefits.

These findings are supported by survey and interview data in the study published in Social Science and Medicine, along with recommendations to prioritize policies and approaches that will support healthy, equitable, racially just community development that prevents displacement. Residents of neighborhoods that historically have been structurally excluded from opportunity by racial capitalism and anti-Black racism through redlining, public neglect, devaluation and disinvestment, predatory lending, house flipping, and other exclusionary housing policies and practices, collected this data. The findings offer insights that will help decision-makers understand the specific needs and experiences of this particular group.

Resident-Led Research on Neighborhood Health

The research is just one of many findings from the Healthy Neighborhoods Study—a partnership of planners, advocates, academic researchers, community-based organization leaders, and 50 resident researchers, convened by Conservation Law Foundation and Massachusetts Institute of Technology with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Together, partners collect on-the-ground data to determine what matters most for health as gentrification, climate change, and other forces of neighborhood change unfold in their communities from the residents' perspective. The Healthy Neighborhoods Study is the largest participatory action research project on healthy communities in the U.S., and includes nine neighborhoods in Greater Boston, including the cities of Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, Fall River, and New Bedford and the Boston neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury.

Resident researchers defined and measured “ownership of change”—the sense of empowerment, control, and decision-making power that residents experience over the changes happening in their neighborhoods, and the sense of belief that those changes are intended to benefit them and their neighbors. They surveyed thousands of their neighbors and developed the data tools needed to better understand this concept as a social determinant of health.

“You’re putting in more developments, and we still don’t have a store that we can go to. They’re just eating up all the property around here and inviting their friends to come and do the same thing. We’re all left vulnerable,” said Arnetta Baty, a Dorchester, Mass. resident and Healthy Neighborhoods Study resident researcher.

Gentrification, Displacement, and Health

As housing prices rapidly rise in cities across the nation, neighborhoods that historically have experienced a lack of investment, particularly Black and Brown communities, are experiencing gentrification—a surge of reinvestment and an influx of higher-income, White individuals and amenities that cater to them. These changes come hand in hand with displacement, widening economic inequality, and existing residents are becoming less connected with community decisions and more disconnected from whom and what they need to thrive. Investments happen without meaningful community leadership or input. Notably, the study found that while 6 in 10 respondents notice changes in housing in their neighborhood, only 2 in 10 respondents say that they and people like them have a voice in those changes, and think that those changes will benefit them.

Interview data from our study proposes that experiences of ownership of change are shaped by structural forces like capitalism and anti-Black racism. Black respondents spoke explicitly about how anti-Black racism has contributed to the devaluation of Black communities in the urban development process, resulting in unique vulnerabilities and exclusion for Black people that lead to a lack of ownership of change.

As one interview respondent noted, “I don't think it's a community decision, I think with gentrification happening everywhere it's just a matter of time. Of course, people of color have no control over gentrification happening.” The experience of seeing rapid neighborhood development and anticipating the cultural and economic impact this will have on their lives, along with the stress of potential displacement amid unchecked rent increases—over time, this wears on people’s health.

Building on eight years of research, the team was able to demonstrate how ownership of change is the missing ingredient needed to curb gentrification and improve the health of existing, long-term residents of gentrifying communities.

Centering Community Voice in Development Decisions

Going forward, centering the vision, priorities, power, and voices of existing residents in community development plans will be critical to investing in communities in a healthy, equitable way. Embracing processes that center community voices, and build and rely on community power is essential. Increasing ownership over change requires that institutions and decision-makers take action. This includes urban planners, community developers, elected officials and health systems and other investors stepping outside of common and existing practices that consciously and unconsciously perpetuate anti-Black racism and the devaluation of Black voices. Instead, they must lean into processes that center community voices, and build and rely on community power. While community engagement processes exist, data from the study suggest that new strategies would increase community voice and anticipated benefit from changes.

Given the findings, study authors call for these actions:

  • Promote understanding of the “ownership of change” concept widely, as a critical element of equitable community development and urban planning;

  • Invest in and advocate for more community control over neighborhood development plans and decisions;

  • Invest in and advocate for policies, programs, and processes that increase ownership of change for long-standing residents; and

  • Raise awareness of how and why structural racism shapes ownership of change, and that histories of exclusion must be repaired to increase levels of ownership of change.

Those who are most impacted by a problem are best positioned to understand and address it. That’s why our research focuses on residents’ lived experiences and expertise to support organizing, advocacy, and planning for healthy and equitable community development that prevents displacement. To build healthy and equitable communities, ownership over the changes needs to be defined, measured, and tracked throughout planning processes to ensure that residents’ needs are being met.


More about Reann Gibson

Reann brings technical expertise in public health and participatory research, and lived experience as Black person navigating urban spaces, to her work. She enjoys building connections across groups and using data to solve complex problems, and believes that this is essential to building healthy communities. Reann is a Boston (Mattapan!) native residing in Washington state. In their spare time Reann enjoys connecting with the earth through community gardening, hiking, rock climbing, and making pottery.


You can hear Reann Gibson speak more on this research and their work in Season 2, Episodes 3 & 4 of In the Arena with NOW.

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