Infrastructure and Public Health in Grays Ferry

By Isabelle Breier

Images: University of the Sciences.

It may seem strange to think about at first, but the connections between infrastructure and public health run deep. This is because the neighborhoods, conditions, and environments in which we live have a significant influence on our state of health. For example, if you live in a food desert, or a neighborhood that lacks easy access to nutritious food, your diet will negatively impact your health. If you live near an industrial complex, like certain kinds of factories or oil refineries, your health can be adversely affected by chemicals that are released into the environment. If your neighborhood doesn’t have bike lanes, you don’t have access to an efficient and convenient means of both transportation and exercise. 

Unfortunately, many of these negative chains of effect are at work in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Grays Ferry. Grays Ferry has low access to healthy food, which is harmful to the health of its residents. In 2015, 26% of adults in the neighborhood had diabetes, as opposed to 15% of adults in Philadelphia as a whole; the obesity rate was 46%, as opposed to 34% for Philadelphia; and the mortality rate from coronary artery disease (the most common type of heart disease) from 2007-2010 was 182 per 100,000, as opposed to 158 per 100,000 in Philadelphia. The long-running PES oil refinery had deleterious effects on the environment that are likely reflected in poor air quality; in 2015, 39% of children in Grays Ferry had asthma, as opposed to 22% in Philadelphia as a whole.

Poverty exacerbates the severity of deficiencies in both infrastructure and public health. Less affluent neighborhoods often have less robust public infrastructure and receive less investment to improve the infrastructure that they do have. In addition, poverty can make accessing healthcare more difficult. Grays Ferry has a high poverty rate, and the median household income of the neighborhood from 2011-2015 was $24,223 (versus $38,253 for Philadelphia as a whole).

As I discovered while doing research to construct a bike map of Grays Ferry, the social and structural inequalities present in the neighborhood are exemplified in its inadequate public cycling infrastructure. Grays Ferry has so few bike lanes that the legend of a recent City of Philadelphia bicycle path map was placed directly over the Grays Ferry neighborhood. There has been investment in bicycling infrastructure in Grays Ferry, but it has been less than adequate. The $13.3 million reconstruction of the Grays Ferry Bridge, which is currently underway, includes bike lanes, but the westbound side’s bike lane is not protected, making it very unsafe for cyclists. The eastbound side, which will be protected, is bidirectional and multi-use (i.e. open to pedestrians), which diminishes its safety as well. Even this expansion is merely one bridge- the rest of Grays Ferry remains underserved.

To invest in public infrastructure- bike lanes included– is to invest in public health. Increasing Grays Ferry residents’ access to bike lanes would undoubtedly have a positive impact on their health and well-being.

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