One Reason Obesity is on the Rise in Low-Income Neighborhoods Like Harlem That You Did Not Think Of

East Harlem is the home of New York City's highest rates of obesity and diabetes. People who care have long blamed poor eating habits, demographics, or lack of fresh produce for the community's poor health. While true, people often overlook the contributions that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the Department of Transportation have played in keeping East Harlem unhealthy.

East Harlem has the second highest concentration of NYCHA owned public housing in the nation. Many of the 13 huge housing projects in East Harlem provide parking to its residents for a very low annual fee ranging from $270 - $550. Anyone whose lived in Harlem would probably agree that you can't park a car for cheaper anywhere else in the city. If you happen to have a NYCHA parking permit, and have easy access to housing project parking, you may be more inclined to own a car.

The DOT has done its share to contribute to East Harlem's vehicular congestion by creating reverse 90 and 45 degree parking in many of its wide streets. This development increases the volume of cars that can park on a block, therefore also creating incentives for people to drive.

Cheap, available parking means that people don't walk, they drive in East Harlem. This affects the overall health of the community by reducing pedestrian traffic, increasing asthma rates, and indirectly contributing to the obesity problem. Further, without foot traffic, small businesses, new restaurants, and other healthier options will not survive.

In 2010, NYCHA effectively eliminated one of it parking lots to make way for a housing complex and a charter school at the St. Nicholas Houses on 129th Street. This is one of the few times when NYCHA has developed over its lots for the overall social welfare of the broader community. It’s a large step forward, and similar types of development should take place in other NYCHA owned spaces.

NYCHA’s need to undertake comprehensive plans for neighborhood development must include steps to improve the overall poor health of its residents. They should partner will the City to re-imagine this area as a healthy one, where people and businesses thrive. The restructuring of parking parking in East Harlem will probably not be a popular decision (especially for those who invested in cars) but one that needs to be considered if long term economic and physical health of the community is a goal.