Orlando's historic African-American neighborhood embraces healthy community design

By Jim Sellen

Dr. Richard J. Jackson, professor/chair, Environmental Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Los Angeles, coined the concept of Healthy Community Design, and over the years, many communities have adapted aspects of his ideas, but no one has taken the holistic approach that the Parramore Comprehensive Neighborhood Plan incorporates. 

A historic African-American neighborhood in Orlando, Parramore was a vibrant and self-sufficient community of doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, businessmen and other professionals in the early and mid-twentieth century.  Churches fed the spirit and hope of this proud community.  But desegregation in the 1960s brought dramatic changes.  Many black professionals and community leaders sought new opportunities outside the neighborhood.  Through the 1970s1980s, and 1990s, the traditionally white section of Orlando to the east of Division Street experienced explosive growth and prosperity.  The tourism industry blossomed in Orlando, and while older white neighborhoods were revitalized, little investment crossed the divide to the black community.

Desegregation in the 1960s was supposed to engender harmony, but changes to Parramore were anything but harmonious.  Black businesses moved out to capture more clientele…because they could.  Neighborhood schools closed, and children were bused to white schools, many of which were a considerable distance from their neighborhood.  Interstate 4 became the new barrier (replacing Division Street), and construction of the East/West Expressway destroyed hundreds of residences and businesses.

In recent years, the city of Orlando under Mayor Buddy Dyer has focused more attention on Parramore.  Initiatives like the Parramore Kid Zone (PKZ), which connects young people to quality education and mentoring, experienced success with the announcement that all 30 PKZ graduating 2015 high school seniors will be attending college.  The city’s Blueprint Employment Office has hired more than 835 neighborhood residents to help construct the largest public works project in Florida’s history — the construction of the MLS Soccer Stadium, Orlando Citrus Bowl, Amway Center and the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts, and Parramore welcomed six new businesses, with three more on the drawing boards.  These achievements, while definitely making an impact, could not ensure lasting success without a deeper approach.  The health of this historic neighborhood needed to be tackled from the soul out, and that’s where Healthy Community Design will change the culture of Parramore.

To truly revitalize a blighted neighborhood takes deep research and a holistic approach.  Physical activity must be built into the community as the first alternative.  All citizens, from the pre-K youngster to the retiree, must feel safe as they walk to community schools and transit options.  With health at the forefront, schools should provide additional services such as adult education alternatives and on-site medical assistance.   And the route to and from schools and transit must include access to fresh, healthy food. 

Through a planning process focused on Healthy Community Design, VHB (with Dr. Richard Jackson on our team), in collaboration with the City of Orlando, Enhance Central Florida, and Pathways for Parramore, prepared the Parramore Comprehensive Neighborhood Plan.  The general goals of this plan are to improve public health, increase mobility options and connectivity, revitalize the physical appearance, and increase opportunities for neighborhood-serving businesses within the historic community.  The plan enumerates recommended Action Items necessary to create a 21st Century Parramore that is fully integrated and connected to SunRail, downtown Orlando, and surrounding neighborhoods, all in an environmentally, socially, and economically-sustainable manner.

We put our hearts into this plan.  There have been many plans for Parramore, and we wanted ours to be the one that made the difference.  And the plan is underway.

In January, ground was broken on the new community school, which incorporates preschool through 8th grade and will serve as a community wellness hub.  An incentive package for a neighborhood grocery is on the roster, bringing fresh vegetables and fruits to a neighborhood that previously had nothing better to offer than soft drinks and soda.  The city is in the process of restoring facades of historic buildings on Parramore Avenue to encourage business.  In terms of neighborhood housing, 150 to 200 multi-family and single-family attached homes will be actively solicited and will include mixed-income units.

Parramore is THE example of Dr. Jackson’s Healthy Community Design, and it is being implemented thoughtfully and with community stewardship at the forefront.  Public health is no longer solely the business of health professionals.  There is a necessary symbiosis between our built environment and our health.

Jim Sellen, MSP, is a principal and Florida planning practice leader for VHB, a firm of planners, engineers, scientists, and designers.  Jim has been charged with advancing VHB’s Healthy Community Design initiative.  He is a former planning director for Orange County, Fla., where he was responsible for leading the development of the county’s first growth management plan.  

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