This is Black Health Matters, a series shedding light on the health realities of Black people in America. Akilah Cadet, DHSc, MPH, in partnership with Healthline, aims to educate about inequities to inspire a world where everyone can attain their full health potential, regardless of the color of their skin.

A healthy neighborhood is made up of a lot of factors.

It has access to fresh food, stable housing, quality schools, community services, and places where people can exercise and play safely. 

These social determinants of health highlight the importance of neighborhood and physical environment for overall well-being. 

In recent months, we’ve seen the importance of advocating for Black lives. Where Black people live is crucial to their quality of life.

Neighborhood and physical environment

Housing is core to living a healthy life. Due to the history of enslavement of Black people in the United States, the divisions from plantations remain. Neighborhoods are still segregated, with Black people often in poorly funded communities separate from wealthy, white neighborhoods.

A healthy Black community has:

  • safe homes and opportunities for equitable homeownership
  • community services to provide social support and protection
  • neighborhoods with playgrounds, walking paths, green grass, and clean streets
  • schools with current textbooks, counselors, and health services
  • grocery stores and farmers markets for access to fresh fruits and vegetables

Many Black communities don’t have these resources. In some cases, those that did have been removed or destroyed.  


Public housing, known as “projects,” are now viewed as a place where low-income, primarily Black, people live. 

Public housing started in the 1930s and was first used to address a housing shortage for middle- and working-class communities. Black and white families were able to purchase the housing from the government. Some public housing was primarily for white families.

The government continued segregation in 1934 when the Federal Housing Administration began redlining, the practice of not insuring mortgages in Black neighborhoods.

After World War II, the Federal Housing Administration funded suburban developments outside of cities. Developers were eligible for government financing if they wouldn’t sell or rent their homes to Black people.

The GI Bill, passed in 1944, provided unemployment insurance, college tuition, and affordable home loans to white WWII veterans. It was denied to 1 million Black veterans.

The GI Bill was designed to create wealth for those who fought for our country. Due to the fear of Black advancement, banks in partnership with Veterans Affairs took those opportunities away. 

Instead, a racial wealth gap was created between Black and white people.

Since Black people weren’t allowed to purchase homes and live in suburban neighborhoods, they moved into public housing originally built for white people.

In time, the projects were no longer kept at the same healthy standards as when white people lived there.

According to Adaeze Cadet, vice president and licensed architect for HKS Architects, there is a “lack of empathy in the design for public housing projects.” 

This limits walkability, safety, and overall health and well-being.

Empathy was forgotten, along with the maintenance of the buildings. Soon, increased policing followed.

Community services and protection

Police brutality in Black communities has threatened the physical and psychological safety of Black people. There’s an endless news cycle of murder, maiming, and harm from police.

Police brutality is unwarranted excessive force against civilians by law enforcement that is illegal or considered a civil rights violation.

Police have murdered more than 800 people in 2020, 28 percent of whom were Black people. Black people make up only 13 percent of the nation’s population. 

Black people are three times more likely to die at the hands of police. That number increases depending on where a Black person lives.

Police brutality in Black communities causes an increase in anxiety, stress, and low perception of safety in their own neighborhoods. This stress further contributes to chronic health conditions.

Alyasah A. Sewell, associate professor of sociology at Emory University, identified a connection between excessive police force against pedestrians in Black communities and higher risk of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

A study of nearly 40,000 Black Americans showed that police killings of unarmed Black men could contribute to an estimated 1.7 additional poor mental health days per person each year.

That estimate equates to 55 million more poor mental health days among Black American adults.

Black neighborhoods need resources to remove racial stress and trauma, like community services, mental health access, and elimination of police violence.

Police brutality is a public health issue that reduces quality of life for Black people.

Green neighborhoods

The Institute for Local Government defines a healthy neighborhood as a place where residents of all ages and abilities have the opportunity to be physically active in a safe environment. It must be free from hazards and pollutants that endanger current or future health.

Some Black neighborhoods don’t offer opportunities for people to feel safe, let alone exercise. 

Lack of activity, living in poverty, lack of access to nutritious food, and not owning a home add to higher levels of high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes at younger ages.

A Princeton University study found that higher levels of asthma in Black children were due to segregation, not race. The children in the study lived in low-income neighborhoods with higher levels of environmental pollutants that negatively affected their health. 

When people advocate for Black Lives Matter, neighborhoods matter too.

Luckily, there’s a shift happening in the design space. 

“The architectural field is changing as more people start looking at holistic design,” Cadet says. “Holistic design includes looking at the stakeholder or community member and sustainability of healthy, green neighborhoods.”

Black people need to be included in the process of deciding what makes their communities safe and healthy.


Brown vs. Board of Education desegregated schools in 1954. Six decades later, more than 50 percent of America’s K-12 schools are in racially concentrated school districts mostly segregated by income. 

The result is well-funded schools serving rich, primarily white neighborhoods and underfunded schools serving mostly poor communities of color.

Schools in wealthier neighborhoods receive more funds from property taxes than those in low-income neighborhoods. In traditionally Black neighborhoods, this negatively affects:

  • class sizes
  • textbook quality
  • computer access
  • teacher retention
  • availability of counselors and career mentorship
  • campus safety

With school districts funded locally, states are supposed to fill in the gaps for equal access to education. States don’t always do their part, and segregation, zoning, and redlining remain.

In addition, Black children are discriminated against in schools, even in their own neighborhood. 

During the 2015-16 school year, Black boys made up 8 percent of the student population but accounted for 25 percent of suspensions. Similarly, Black girls made up another 8 percent of students but 14 percent of suspensions. 

This discrepancy is a direct result of bias

These practices continue segregation, lower standardized test scores, and create performance gaps between Black and white students.

Access to healthy foods

With common health concerns like high blood pressure and diabetes in the Black community, healthy food is vital. 

Black neighborhoods tend to be food swamps or food deserts, places without fresh fruits and vegetables.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 39.4 million families only have access to fast food and convenience stores, not grocery stores and farmers markets.

The USDA also notes that Black people are nearly 2.5 times more likely to live in a neighborhood with few to no grocery stores when compared to white people. 

Under-resourced communities with limited transportation mean Black families must travel farther to access healthy foods.

Take action

Remember to vote 

A lot of what happens in communities is determined during local elections. This includes access to education, community programs, policies, and city services.

Attend a city council meeting

Learn what efforts are being made in communities that aren’t equitable. Make a public comment about a redevelopment project or needs for a healthy neighborhood.

Get educated

Read “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein, or listen to his summary of segregation in neighborhoods.

Learn eight ways to minimize police brutality through Campaign Zero. Visit the Mapping Police Project for a wealth of knowledge, facts, and visuals to share on social.

Demand equal education

Hold your local school district accountable for equal education. Attend a school board meeting or review their state report card to take action.

Take care of your health

There are safe ways to exercise and move your body inside if you’re unable to go outside due to air quality, COVID-19, or lack of neighborhood safety. 

Use this list to find the right routine for you.

Support food access

Support The Food Trust, a nonprofit that works to improve policy, provide access to groceries, and bring farmers markets to food deserts.

Safe neighborhoods save lives 

Black people are fighting for their humanity. We shouldn’t have to fight to live in humane neighborhoods too. 

Healthy communities provide equitable opportunities for Black people to live long, thriving lives.

When asked what three things are needed for a healthy Black community, architect Adaeze Cadet says, “Access to green space, fresh food, and sense of belonging. You’ll take care of your community more when you truly feel like you are a part of it.” 

I couldn’t agree more.

Akilah Cadet, MPH, works with tech companies, nonprofits, retail, and small businesses to assure diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies that support Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), women, and the marginalized communities in the workplace. As a Black woman, she uses her personal and professional experiences to inspire her anti-racism work through coaching, strategy, facilitation, and organizational change. She’s proud to live in Oakland, CA, has a rare heart condition, and is a proud Beyoncé advocate. Follow her here.