The right spice can make the difference between a successful recipe or a failed one.
African immigrants who lived in the old Lincoln Park housing development southwest of downtown Denver knew this. They would take buses all the way out to ethnic markets in Aurora to buy the spices they needed to prepare the traditional dishes they love.
So when the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) began asking Lincoln Park residents what they wanted when the area was redeveloped, some of the women asked for community gardens to grow their own spices.
They got gardens and much, much more.
The new development, named Mariposa – Spanish for butterfly – brought an array of hard-to-find ingredients to the neighborhood, which used to be a food and retail desert. Bikes Together brings low-cost exercise and transportation. Catholic Charities runs a child care program. Youth on Record and Arts Street provides job training in the music and arts industries. Osage Café sells affordable, healthy food, while also serving as a spot for internships for students in Mariposa’s culinary academy.
And Denver Botanic Gardens not only designed community gardens and a greenhouse, but also provided expert advice on how to grow those African spices in Colorado’s climate.
Mariposa is still in development but is already gaining a national reputation as an example of using community-driven design to promote health. The development employs a healthy living coordinator and a patient navigator. They are crucial to promoting use of the health-focused amenities, said Lynne Picard, DHA’s director of workforce development and community initiatives.
Picard heard about residents’ desire for spices during a series of community dialogues about what La Alma-Lincoln Park residents wanted from their new neighborhood.
Mariposa is just west of the Arts District on Santa Fe, and project leaders learned how much value residents place on art. So for the first time in DHA history, public art was included in a housing development.
Better street lighting and wide sidewalks give the area a safer feel. This was especially important for residents and people using the nearby light rail station.
Mariposa replaces roughly four blocks of vacant lots and obsolete public housing with mid-rises packed with amenities. The first building was completed in 2012 and the whole development is scheduled to be finished around the end of 2017. When complete, Mariposa will consist of 517 housing units with a projected population of 725, split among three types of units: public housing, low-income housing and market-rate rentals.
Private developers could add units for purchase on two parcels the DHA plans to sell.
Currently, about 450 people live in the development.
“We built everything here through a public health lens,” Picard said. “Our stairways are wider. They have more light. It’s easier to get to a stairway than an elevator.”
One building features an “active staircase” that lures kids into climbing steps instead of riding the elevator. Buttons are built into the railings to activate sounds and lights that help tell a Mayan folk tale titled “Chocolate Tree.” Children’s hospitals and museums have active staircases, but Mariposa’s is one of the first in a residential building, Picard said.
The Colorado Health Foundation provided funding for the stairway and other touches that took Mariposa from a good place to live to an enviable one.
Those touches have shown that a well-built environment can improve people’s health. DHA leaders have the numbers to prove it.
The DHA takes annual surveys of its residents. In the three years since Mariposa opened, 38 percent more residents say their health status is good rather than poor. There’s been a 6 percent drop in smoking rates, Picard said.
And residents are voting with their feet. Nationally, around 10 percent of people return to a housing project when it is rebuilt. At Mariposa, 45 percent of residents returned.
“It takes input from all levels of the community to figure out what it takes to create a healthy community — not just physical health but economic health, transportation health,” Picard said. “You need all of them to create a truly healthy community.”