Creating Healthier Environments for Everyone: Minneapolis, MN

Despite what you might expect with the climate, any annual list of “most bikeable” cities is going to have Minneapolis, MN, near the top. As the county seat of Hennepin County, which ranked 52 out of 84 counties in Minnesota in the 2012 County Health Rankings, Minneapolis is intentionally designed with bikeways and paths to encourage active transportation, including biking and walking.

But there are still disparities that the city is working hard to overcome in order improve its overall health.

“We have this incredibly healthy lifestyle and so many wonderful things, but we also have one of the largest gaps between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ of any city in the country—in economic disparities, in health, in education,” said Mayor RT Rybak. “So our focus is absolutely on closing those gaps.”

One promising solution is the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), which takes a “cradle to college to career” approach to helping low-income families in North Minneapolis make sure every youth is ready for college when they graduate from high school. The program succeeds by engaging parents, assigning each family a coach tasked with fostering the dream of higher education, and providing a full range of place-based family services.

“What we know is that the achievement gap is made up of a lot of gaps, one of them being the ‘belief gap’—we simply don’t believe as a society that children born in a certain zip code of poverty, of violence, of single parentage, can actually do as well and excel in school,” said Sondra Samuels, President and CEO of NAZ. “Our goal is to change everything about a child’s life all at once, and so that means partnering with the parents. If the family needs housing, our team helps them get respectable housing. If they need a job, we are working with them to have more than just jobs, but careers.” 

NAZ recently received a sizeable grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand its program to support 1,200 families and 3,000 children.

Recognizing the impact of economic opportunity and academic achievement on health, Venture North Bike Walk & Coffee also provides youth employment opportunities and bike sales/repair services in North Minneapolis. The bike repair and rental center is also working to bring the city’s culture of bicycling to revitalize the economically disadvantaged area.

Additionally, the City of Minneapolis and more than 40 community organizations are implementing a comprehensive obesity and tobacco prevention initiative to increase physical activity, healthy eating and smoke-free living. Highlights of Healthy Living Minneapolis include increasing the number of corner stores that sell healthy produce; expanding the city’s culture and infrastructure for biking and walking; and adopting a smoke-free policy in a large multi-unit housing development called Riverside Plaza.

“The changes that Riverside Plaza has been able to make really dovetail nicely with other changes that have occurred in our community,” said Gretchen Musicant, Minneapolis Health Commissioner. “A couple of years ago we were able to pass an ordinance so that there's no smoking in bars and restaurants, and so it fits into a strategy we have of trying to work in locations where people live, work and play so that the same messages are available no matter where people go, and that really changes the norms that people feel about their community.”

Minneapolis was among six communities to receive the inaugural RWJF Roadmaps to Health Prize in February 2012. The prize was launched to further the work of the County Healthy Rankings & Roadmaps program, which aims to educate the public and policy-makers on the multiple factors that influence community health—such as education, economic conditions, and the physical environment—and to provide solutions that will improve community health. To learn more about the prize, click here.