The Trail that Would Heal a Community

CLIMB map with logo
BY ANDREA APPLETON
WHERE OTHERS SEE PAVEMENT AND POVERTY, LOURDES Hernández-Cordero sees potential. During a neighborhood stroll, she stops on the corner of St. Nicholas and 135th Street and gazes up. “Do you know the Montparnasse area in Paris where the Sacre Coeur church is?” she asks, gesturing toward the steep green slopes of St. Nicholas Park, splashed with colorful flowers but devoid of people. “Can you envision it?”
   Dr. Hernández-Cordero is a member of the Mailman School of Public Health’s Community Research Group and a key proponent of CLIMB, a long-term project that seeks to build a hiking trail through Northern Manhattan. CLIMB — for City Life is Moving Bodies — was launched in the summer of 2005 under the direction of Mindy Fullilove, M.D., professor of clinical psychiatry in P&S and professor of clinical sociomedical sciences in the Mailman School.
   The trail will run roughly north-south, linking a series of parks: Morningside, Jackie Robinson, St. Nicholas, and Highbridge Park. Highbridge, one of the largest and most historic green spaces in the city, has been largely abandoned in recent decades. How the parks will be connected, whether through signposts, maps, or other visual cues, has not been determined. 
   CLIMB proponents hope to breathe life back into once blighted green spaces of Upper Manhattan. Dr. Hernández-Cordero says the initiative could improve local residents’ quality of life on many levels. For example, in partnership with the Columbia Center for Youth Violence Prevention, one of CLIMB’s goals is to combat violence by fostering a sense of community pride and entitlement to public spaces. Other local groups, including the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation and the Washington Heights Coalition on Aging, are organizing walking groups that take advantage of nearby trails. Dr. Hernández-Cordero says the presence of more health-conscious people walking the trail would encourage healthier food options in neighborhoods where fresh produce and other healthy food can be hard to come by, so the group hopes to collaborate with Northern Manhattan Community Voices’ Healthy Choices program. As foot traffic increases, the project also could provide opportunities for locally owned businesses, so the group seeks to engage local businesses in its initiatives.
   “At the end of the day, the project will be as successful as the many different voices that we have involved,” says Dr. Hernández-Cordero.
   The CLIMB team has sought out community organizations to create awareness and foment discussion about the project. More than 300 people attended the first public event last year, Hike the Heights, a party in Highbridge Park co-organized with the Center for Children’s Environmental Health and WeAct. More than 500 attended this year. Dr. Hernández-Cordero attributes this impressive turnout to the many partnerships CLIMB has fostered with community organizations, more than 15 of whom participated in this year’s party — including Partnerships for Parks, City Parks Foundation, and Dancing in the Streets.
   Feedback from residents has been overwhelmingly positive. One participant in a hike through Highbridge Park that CLIMB organized said, “This looks like the rain forest in Panama! I had no idea.” Many residents are not aware how lovely their neighborhood parks are because they are often still seen as violent and crime-ridden. Despite the fact that crime levels have fallen sharply in recent decades, the parks retain that “haunted house” aura. It’s something CLIMB partners hope to change.
   The Community Research Group plans to conduct formal research once the project has gathered more steam. Research could include monitoring ongoing changes in the health of residents. Dr. Hernández-Cordero says the project also represents a great opportunity for exploring interdisciplinary work, particularly between public health professionals and urban planners.
   The best way to find out more about CLIMB is on the hoof. CLIMB hosts regular walking meetings along the trail-to-be. For more information about the project or its partners, write to Dr. Hernández-Cordero at ljh19@columbia.edu or call 212-740-7292.

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