Placemaking panel examines zipcodes and death

Dr. Anthony Iton, a national public health expert, talked about the connection between a person’s zipcode and their life expectancy as part of a panel discussion on Tuesday, May 12 at Metro State University. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
Dr. Anthony Iton, a national public health expert, talked about the connection between a person’s zipcode and their life expectancy as part of a panel discussion on Tuesday, May 12 at Metro State University. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

If you live in the Payne-Phalen or Dayton’s Bluff neighborhoods, odds are your life will be eight years shorter than someone living in Minnetonka, Edina, or Eagan.

That’s according to a Wilder Research publication published in 2010, and it’s something that national health expert Dr. Anthony Iton sees play out across the country — your ZIP code is an indicator of your life expectancy.

Iton brought this up as part of a daylong discussion and exploration of Dayton’s Bluff and Payne-Phalen, where three national planning experts looked at the neighborhoods from the perspective of public health on Tuesday, May 12. The event was part of the fourth annual weeklong “placemaking residency” sponsored by St. Paul Riverfront Corporation.

A group of neighborhood activists and local planning organizations walked around the neighborhood, exploring the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and Swede Hollow Park, the busy East Seventh Street, the East Side Enterprise Center, and more.

The day culminated in a panel discussion, kicked off by remarks from St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, followed by a presentation from Iton, one of the three experts in residence. As the senior vice president for Healthy Communities at the California Endowment, Iton works to push policies that build healthy communities.

The event finished with a panel discussion led by East Sider Tracy Sides, which featured the three national planning experts, plus the Minnesota Commisioner of Health  Dr. Edward Ehlinger, and Kathryn Correia, president and CEO of HealthEast.

Coleman touted policies the city has put in place to improve residents’ health, including approving the St. Paul Comprehensive Bike Plan, the recent addition of two dog parks, and the allocation of money to improve “walkability” through the city’s new 8-80 Vitality Fund, which puts $42.5 million towards a variety of city projects.

“We really picked up on Gil’s 8-80 community (concept),” said Coleman, referring to the internationally renowned urban designer Gil Penalosa, who was the subject of last year’s placemaking residency.

Though he trumpeted those political moves, Coleman noted that problems remain in St. Paul, and noted health ailments that children in poor communities face, including type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

And he pointed to infrastructure and urban planning that discourage exercise and contribute to some of those health issues. “We have created structures ... that make it very difficult for us to walk and to bike,” he said.

ZIP codes

Iton touched on research he helped conduct, which concludes that based on data from death certificates, where you live is a surprisingly good predictor of the age at which you will die.

Iton described this in terms of politics, saying “health is political.”

“Politics is a struggle,” he continued. “If communities have interest in their own health ... they need to be able to participate in that struggle.”

He compared his hometown of Montreal, Quebec, to Baltimore, Maryland, where he was a college student.

When he arrived in Baltimore from Montreal, he recalls wondering, “’When was there a war here?’”

At the time, he was being given a tour, and the guide told him: “What do you expect? It’s the inner city.”

“The rest of my career has been trying to explain this, and its impacts on health,” Iton said.

He spent time in Alameda County, California (which includes San Francisco and the Bay Area) doing data analysis on 50,000 death certificates and made a connection between people’s ZIP codes and how long they lived. He found it could be applied across the country, with the resounding conclusion that often, people in low-income areas don’t live as long as nearby residents in affluent ZIP codes.

“It has to do with how we lay out opportunity in this society,” he said. He pointed to San Francisco, where every $12,500 a household earns “buys” one year of life expectancy. In Baltimore, he said, each $10,000 of additional annual income buys three extra years of life.

He noted that people do beat the odds, living longer, and getting out of poverty. “It happens all the time,” he said. “But the question is, why don’t we change the odds?

“We in public health ... don’t get held accountable for this,” said Iton, who is a former director for the Alameda County Public Health Department.


During the panel discussion, Sides asked Ehlinger why audience members were not surprised to hear that some areas of the Twin Cities have higher life expectancies than others.

Ehlinger suggested that it has to do with social issues and structural racism, and the ideology that downturned neighborhoods can fix themselves.

Dr. Richard Jackson spoke about his belief that “how we were building America [15 years ago] was bad for peoples’ health.”

He said he’s since seen a lot of transformation and urban revitalization. But he’s also witnessed displacement when rundown neighborhoods are rehabbed and higher-income families move in.

Jackson is an expert on city planning as it relates to public health. He authored the well-known book “Designing Healthy Communities” and hosted the PBS documentary series of the same name.

Jackson said he saw Charleston, South Carolina, go from “a pretty crappy city to a place that everybody wants to be.”

The problem, he noted, is that people like himself move there, which results in other, lower-income people being displaced.

“We’ve left an awful lot of people in America out,” he said. “The narrative in America in the next 10 years is we’re no longer going to leave people out.”

Breaking down taboos

Sides asked Iton how to encourage conversations that discuss displacement, and examine the taboo of racial disparities.

Iton pointed to Scott County, Indiana’s recent HIV outbreak, where more than 140 residents have contracted HIV amongst a population of about 4,200.

 “What struck me about this was, here’s a county in America’s heartland — 98 percent white — but manifesting the very same social despair you’re seeing in Baltimore today,” Iton said.

“In Baltimore we see this conversation being about race; in Indiana we see it being about drugs. There’s cognitive dissonance there.”

Though the Twin Cities metro area has its share of health disparities based on income, Iton said the region isn’t so bad.

“One of the things I love about Minneapolis and St. Paul ... is that you have some of the best overall health status in the country,” he said. “It speaks to the social fabric of the community.

“You do see yourselves as being kind of connected to each other.”

The Twin Cities have good leadership, Iton said. “That is gold; run with that.”

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark

Life expectancy based on area

According to a 2010 study conducted by Wilder Research, Twin Cities residents’ life expectancies vary widely depending on where they live. Here are average life expectancies for different areas in the Twin Cities:

• 83 in Minnetonka, Chanhassen, Edina, Bloomington, and Eagan, as well as small areas of St. Paul and Minneapolis

• 80 in Hastings, Woodbury, White Bear Lake, Andover, Plymouth, and nearly all of Carver County, as well as some of Minneapolis’ and St. Paul’s more affluent neighborhoods

• 77 in “working class” areas like Fridley, North St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights, and outer-ring suburbs like Belle Plaine, Maple Plain, Bethel and Stillwater, as well as St. Paul’s North End and Merriam Park neighborhoods

• between 70 and 75 in select Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods, including St. Paul’s Frogtown, West Seventh, Payne-Phalen and Dayton’s Bluff neighborhoods, and Minneapolis’ Near North, Philips and Powderhorn neighborhods


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