New Study Reveals Community Ownership over Urban Development Linked to Greater Physical and Mental Health

"Ownership of Change" key to mitigating impact of gentrification and displacement

Healthy Neighborhood Study resident researchers.

Healthy Neighborhood Study resident researchers.

October 27, 2022 (BOSTON, MA) – In the largest participatory action research study of its kind, community and academic researchers have uncovered a powerful link between “ownership of change” in neighborhoods and individual community members’ physical and mental health. When community members have decision-making power over the changes happening in their neighborhoods, such as new housing developments, and when residents perceive that those changes are intended to benefit current neighborhood residents, this is associated with better physical and mental health and higher levels of happiness for residents, according to a new study published in Social Science and Medicine.

“You’re putting in more developments, and we still don’t have a store that we can go to. They’re just eating up all the property around here and inviting their friends to come and do the same thing. We’re all left vulnerable,” said Arnetta Baty, a Dorchester resident and one of the study authors.

“Widespread gentrification and neighborhood changes are clearly impacting the health of longtime residents,” said Reann Gibson, an HNS Research Scientist at Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). “Decades of redlining and racism have affected communities of color, and now gentrifying development is threatening these neighborhoods all over again. The study’s findings are yet one more reason why people must have power over the changes that could profoundly alter their communities.”

The research comes out of the Healthy Neighborhoods Study – a partnership of planners, advocates, academic researchers, community-based organization leaders, and 50 resident researchers in nine Greater Boston-area communities convened by Conservation Law Foundation and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Together, partners collect on-the-ground data and utilize big data to determine what matters most for health in their communities from the resident’s perspective. The study is conducted in communities heavily impacted by structural racism through redlining and other exclusionary housing policies and practices and thus historically disinvested, and predominantly populated by lower-income people and people of color. Ownership of Change is a new and important measure to understand how changes in place shape health.

Resident Researchers and partners knew from years of organizing and leading work in their communities that when it comes to creating a healthy community, it’s not just what is built, it’s who has control over what is built, and who benefits. In short, self-determination matters for healthy community development.

“People can see opportunities for you, and believe that you are empowered, but until you can own it in a particular way, it doesn’t exist,” noted Jeff Joseph, study author, and former Director at Massasoit Community College.

Through collaborative research design and analysis workshops, researchers established a shared understanding of ownership of change measures of community power and self-determination and then created a survey and interview tools to measure it and its impact on health. To date, HNS researchers have surveyed more than 3,000 residents and interviewed nearly 140 residents to develop this measure.

“Community health depends on redistributing power over neighborhood change,” said Andrew Binet, Ph.D., an HNS researcher and one of the study’s authors from MIT. “These findings should encourage urban planners and policymakers to stretch past conventional approaches to participation or engagement and seek to foster ownership over neighborhood changes. I mean ownership both in terms of political and economic power. This will involve building democratic mechanisms for community members to determine the vision and set the agenda for development in their neighborhood and to reap the benefits of the changes that happen to their neighborhoods. There is no cookie-cutter way to do this, but there are many strategies we can experiment with: it behooves us to figure it out.”

Over the last several years, housing costs in the Boston area increased dramatically. Now, many longtime residents are being priced out of their communities. With this rapid pace of development, social and economic inequality is increasing, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods. As their neighborhoods change, residents try to make sense of the changes, assess how much they might be impacted, and then determine their ability to influence these changes.

Interview data shows notable differences between Black and non-Black respondents in the way they conceive of racism as a force shaping neighborhood changes and their ownership over them. Black respondents spoke explicitly about how anti-Black racism has contributed to the devaluation of Black communities in the urban development process, resulting in unique vulnerabilities and exclusion for Black people that led them to experience a lack of ownership of change.

Other notable findings:

  • 62% of respondents notice changes in housing in their neighborhood, but of those, only 21% think those changes will benefit them, and only 21% say that they have a voice in those changes.
  • 45% of respondents notice changes in parks in their neighborhood, and while 32% of those respondents think those changes will benefit them, only 24% say that they have a voice in those changes.
  • 30% of respondents notice changes in policing in their neighborhood, and just 21% of those respondents think those changes will benefit them. Only 18% say that they have a voice in those changes.

Resident Researchers posit that when residents experience a lack of ownership over the changes happening in their neighborhoods, this can come with feelings of disempowerment, a low sense of control, perceptions of inequality, and experiences of structural racism and discrimination, which may lead to worse physical and mental health and lower happiness levels.

Dr. Binet continued, “These findings demonstrate the value of centering resident experiences and knowledge in understanding how urban development can be helpful or harmful. Resident Researchers developed the concept of ownership of change because they thought it might matter for health, built tools to measure it systematically, and collaborated on key analytical decisions. Planners and policymakers should heed their insight that whether neighborhood changes are experienced as empowering or disempowering is a key factor in whether development builds or undermines community health.”

Recommendations from the study authors include:

  • Enhancing participation in designing interventions and policies;
  • Supporting and enhancing community organizing infrastructure;
  • Redistributing decision-making power, fostering transparency;
  • Enhancing access to information to ensure that community members have the knowledge they need to use their collective power.

What is ownership of change? At its core, ownership of change is about community power. Ownership of change is when you experience changes happening in your neighborhood – such as new housing, parks, commercial developments, or changes in public transportation or policing – and can see how they will benefit and are meant for you and the people in your neighborhood, and that you have some say in decisions about these changes. It is a novel construct created by the Healthy Neighborhoods Study that describes the relationship between community self-determination and health.

Why This Matters: Changes that happen to, rather than with, communities, may harm health and contribute to alienation and powerlessness, which impact health and wellbeing. To hold ownership over changes happening in communities, residents need to have a say in decisions, see that the changes will benefit them, and be confident that these benefits will be real and aligned with the community’s culture and priorities. Existing structures need processes that enable residents to control how changes happen in the neighborhood. Ownership of change is necessary to address and repair the harms of structural racism in communities.

Experts are available for further comment; contact Jake O’Neill ( for inquiries.

About the Healthy Neighborhoods Study
This research is part of the Healthy Neighborhoods Study (HNS), the nation’s largest community-based participatory action research study focused on the health impacts of neighborhood change. A goal of the study is to support organizing, advocacy, and planning for healthy and equitable community development that prevents displacement. HNS includes a network of academic researchers, 50 resident researchers, grassroots community organizations, regional planning agencies, and advocacy groups that represent nine communities across Eastern Massachusetts: Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, Brockton, Fall River, New Bedford, and the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan.

As a Participatory Action Research Project, residents trained as researchers ask questions, collect and analyze data, and take action. Knowing that their neighbors are being displaced farther and farther from their communities, resident researchers sought data to understand moving patterns, better support displaced residents, and advocate for change.