Academics and policy leaders have long argued that moving from place to place can have tremendous negative consequences for a person’s mental and physical health. These consequences can be exacerbated across certain social classes and racial/ethnic groups, making it an issue of equity. As an urban sociologist who researches residential mobility (which I define as “constant, unsettling relocation from one abode to another”) as a mechanism that perpetuates health disparities and inequities, I was drawn to a concept that Nissan unveiled last year in Geneva, Switzerland. There, the car company discussed its newest technology, “Intelligent Mobility,” that was poised to “redefine how we move.” I believe that this concept has relevance beyond the automobile industry. For instance, successful, intelligent residential mobility can change the way that health is powered, driven, and integrated into society. This resonates with policy recommendations that many researchers and leaders continuously advocate for in order to create and maintain stable residential communities.
Most of my life has been spent in rural and suburban communities. Though my family hails from Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood, it wasn’t until I moved to Washington, D.C. in 2010 that I understood and appreciated the urban environment. While I spent my childhood primarily in one house, I had an eye-opening experience while filling out background check documents several months ago. I was asked to provide a list of the places where I have lived since age 16, and realized I had a dozen addresses to provide: the two places I lived when I was in high school, the four places I lived when I was in college, the two places I lived when I was in graduate school, and the four addresses that I had in D.C. Nearly all the moves were considered “positive” mobility, or moves that were associated with an increase in real or projected social standing. I focused on more personal aspects like proximity to entertainment venues and regional malls, commute times, and whether my friends and family held the neighborhood in positive regard. While these aspects have value, they are not as strongly related to health outcomes as other indicators.
What I failed to account for in my search for D.C. neighborhoods were the health-promoting amenities that I would later need to rely on in other neighborhoods. I did not realize that these factors were important to the housing search process. The nearest supermarkets lacked quality produce, and they were located noticeably far from my home. My situation was not unique: Public health and social science research highlights this problem in D.C., in other major metropolitan areas, and in non-urban settings.
Even if a neighborhood has such amenities that can help residents live a healthier life, individuals must also intend to use them, which further supports the notion of intelligent mobility when choosing a community in which to live. Before moving to my current D.C. neighborhood, I conducted the traditional housing search, but in addition to looking for the nearest grocery store and fitness center, I scoured the Internet to find neighborhood blogs and social media groups for those communities. I joined NextDoor, a free, private, Craigslist-style app designed to create a virtual sense of neighborhood connectedness. My main mission was to obtain information that wasn’t a part of a traditional search. Crime statistics are readily available, but I was more interested in perceived crime, which research suggests is more powerful in determining many social outcomes than actual crime rates. I also searched for information about noise and un-neighborly conduct. Noise pollution and the lack of social or community cohesion have been consistently found as predictors of poor health.
All these tangible and intangible neighborhood indicators related to health would not necessarily be found in government resource materials, since municipalities tend to paint neighborhoods in the most positive light. For this reason, apps and online platforms should be more strongly consolidated with official sources. A clear example of such government/private synergy is the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), where the local government has created an online portal to help visitors and residents navigate the city and its neighborhoods. In an effort to allow individuals and companies to contribute to making the MTA more user friendly to residents and tourists, it made its scheduling data available for anyone to use, leading to a wave of app creation for the most utilized public transit authority in the United States. These kinds of partnerships, when focused on health and housing, could revolutionize how people search for, utilize, and make decisions about moving based on integrated information on a place’s characteristics.
At the same time, many communities are loath to provide substantive data about crime rates, quality of education, access to supermarkets, and opportunities for recreation. I believe economic revitalization can incentivize municipalities to provide data about these indicators. Investing in data collection which is then presented in official government correspondence such as websites or social media pages can attract people to a community; keep residents in their neighborhoods assuming that the data suggest their area is adequate—or better prepare residents to move into neighborhoods that meet their specific needs; and can help entice private entities to locate businesses in certain neighborhoods. Walmart used neighborhood data on food deserts to launch a campaign to open stores to combat the issues of food equity in those neighborhoods. More recently, Amazon’s strategy of having municipalities bid for the location of their second headquarters also used these types of data in their proposals. In both these instances, the expectation is that commerce will drive employment, migration, and regional growth. However, implicit in that expectation is that issues of crime, lack of educational resources, affordable housing, and health will benefit from these businesses.
Along with providing ways to collect, utilize, and combine data from multiple sources, there are social benefits to helping residents engage in intelligent mobility. If municipalities and private citizens—such as city planners, public health officials, business leaders, law enforcement, parks and recreation officials, faith leaders, and community organizations—could come together to inform people about their neighborhoods more holistically, then the search for housing, and the underlying (and often unconsidered) health context, would be greatly enhanced. Sometimes, these meetings can be formal, such Washington, D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, but the meetings can also be informal and geared toward seeking advice, stories, frustrations, and resolutions from community members themselves. This is important from a mobility perspective, because some research suggests that people of different races and ethnicities have different knowledge about communities, which could constrain their choices about where to move. Placing vital health-promoting structures and activities—such as medical facilities, local farmers markets, and multi-functional recreation centers—in under-resourced neighborhoods would be a more equitable way to integrate health into mobility and significantly benefit racial, ethnic, and socioeconomically vulnerable populations.
But we cannot forget that for many individuals, mobility is not a choice. People move because they cannot afford the rising rent or property taxes in up-and-coming neighborhoods, or they struggle with making ends meet by balancing financial obligations. Then again, people stay where they are because they have limited options for, or limited interest in, moving anywhere else. Having better data and fostering more private-public partnerships will do little in the short-term to help that daily reality for a significant portion of the population. Yet programs such as Moving to Opportunity and HOPE VI were designed to give as many people as possible the option of moving into safe, affordable housing. Intelligent mobility, for them is not about the neighborhood per se, but about the housing itself. Private and government partnerships that create safe, affordable housing, particularly in under-resourced or transitioning neighborhoods, can help ensure intelligent mobility for all residents.
Local governments and private enterprise should apply Nissan’s “intelligent mobility” concept with an equity lens—understanding how to provide people with relevant information about all neighborhoods in a community, and enabling them to make relocation decisions that could improve their quality of health and life.