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An 'enthusiastic' agent of change to improve lives

Jim Dunn wants to create the conditions that will lead to urban renewal and socially mixed communities.

James Dunn likes to be a witness to history. Actually, it's more than that. He likes to design and direct interventions in beaten-down areas to assess their impact on the mental and physical health of residents.

Improve the area and you may well improve income levels, life expectancy, education scores, civic pride, property values, and all sorts of other things that contribute to a better life.

Dunn holds the Chair in Applied Public Health from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

That appointment puts him face-to-face with glaring inequities, such as those revealed in a recent newspaper series on Hamilton neighbourhoods. The Spectator's Code Red series showed just how disadvantaged some residents in poorer areas really are. Code Red  found, for example, that there is a 21-year life-expectancy gap between people in the best and the worst areas. Almost 50 per cent of babies born in one Hamilton neighbourhood are underweight.

Dunn hopes to play a key role in trying to reverse that inequity divide.

“Definitely, I'm enthusiastic,” he says. “I've only been here (on McMaster's faculty) two years – I graduated from here almost 20 years ago – and one of the reasons I wanted to come here is Hamilton neighbourhoods are poised for change. My Chair looks at the health impacts of neighbourhood interventions.”

 For some time now, Dunn has been part of a CIHR-funded project that focuses on the impact of how  neighbourhood characteristics affect the mental health and well-being of about 3,000 residents in 100 Toronto areas.

He is leading a five-year CIHR project that asks whether disadvantaged people who are placed in rent-assisted housing experience improvements in mental health and healthy child development. This study is looking at areas in Toronto, Peel, Halton and Hamilton. And he also heads a long-term study of what's happening as Toronto's multi-tower Regent Park area comes down and a new neighbourhood springs up on 69 acres.

While it's still early days in the five-year Toronto-to-Hamilton project, as people gradually come off wait-lists and enter their new housing, Dunn says there are positive signs that have gained the attention of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

His latest project hasn't even hit the road yet. Dunn has funding approval to buy digital video equipment to visually capture the changes in some Hamilton neighbourhoods as they get renewed under a new city program.

Before that happens some time next year, Dunn, who is co-Editor-in-Chief of the London-based Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, will take a one-year sabbatical and hold the William Lyon Mackenzie King Visiting Chair in Canadian Studies at  the Harvard School of Public Health.

He likes the attention that neighbourhood renewal is getting in Hamilton. The City has a new head of development strategies and Dunn is working hand-in-hand with city hall.

McMaster researchers will be able to document how changes in environments affect area residents. By capturing the changes in these evolving landscapes, and the residents within them, researchers may be able to offer valued input that can help guide some city and senior government policy decisions.

Sometimes, change takes observers by surprise.

For example, researchers have recently noticed some improved early childhood development scores in north Hamilton neighbourhoods. While it's too early to pin down the factors behind these gains, they do offer hope.

“The good thing about it is that it shows these things are not intractable,” says Dunn. “To my mind, that's where the real paydirt is. If you want to see changes quickly, you're going to see them first in  kids.”

That's why many school districts in North America offer breakfast programs and pre-school programs, as well as reallocate students to schools to achieve social mixes.

The danger, of course, is that such interventions can be targeted by opponents, who cite that families are coming under the thumb of a nanny-state operation. 

These changes, says Dunn, are all about trying to reduce the spatial concentration of poverty in Hamilton neighborhoods and its negative effects.  People with low incomes, poor education, or other disadvantages tend to have even worse outcomes when they live in neighbourhoods with high levels of similarly disadvantaged people.

“We need to create the conditions for urban renewal and socially mixed communities, with a focus on meeting the housing needs of people from all walks of life,” he says.

This requires investments in social housing, as well as better co-ordination of policies and programs in troubled neighbourhoods.

“There are many ‘capital assets’ in Hamilton – natural, social, cultural, economic and in the built environment – and it’s critical to ask how we can leverage them for betterment of health and the reduction of avoidable inequalities.”

Despite signs of a large and growing gap between rich and poor, Dunn remains an optimist that he and other social scientists can help effect positive changes.

 He points to strong attendance figures at a post-Code Red speaker series he organized in Hamilton.

“We've had huge turnouts. There are many people who can see that reducing inequality may be in their enlightened self-interest.”