Putting the Community Back into Community Centers


WRITTEN BY: Javon Davis + Dr. Sarah Martin

Where you are born shouldn’t affect how long you live. Unfortunately, in Kansas City and throughout the United States, it does. A few miles, a bridge over a river, the other side of train tracks, or even political boundaries -- these lines can be the difference between life and death. After analyzing yearly death data, statisticians at the Kansas City, Missouri Health Department found a staggering 13-year gap between the lowest and highest life expectancy zip codes in Kansas City. They also found that many zip codes in the City are experiencing a decreasing life expectancy.

“In this country, in this time where we are spending double what other developed countries spend on health care, we should not be seeing any decreases in life expectancy,” says Dr. Sarah Martin, Deputy Director of the Kansas City, Missouri Health Department. “The biggest predictor of how long you live is not whether you have health insurance, or whether you smoke or exercise -- it’s your address. It’s the social and economic policies that make your neighborhood what it is.”

The KCMO citywide business plan includes an objective about closing the gaps in life expectancy between zip codes. After digging into the reasons behind these inequities, leaders at the Health Department realized that this problem is too big for one department alone to tackle.

Soon after this objective was included in the business plan, the first LifeX Summit was held in November 2016 – a gathering that included department directors, deputy directors and key City staff. They began brainstorming ways to close the life expectancy gaps seen throughout KCMO. Those changes at the zip code level are mostly a product of movement across zip codes -- economic development, city planning, job opportunities creating powerful incentives to move, or creating conditions that make staying too costly for the City’s most vulnerable residents.

Terry Rynard, Deputy Director of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department attended the first LifeX Summit and was inspired to act.

“At the first LifeX Summit, I was stunned to learn the discrepancies in life expectancy just based on zip code,” Rynard said. “We left there inspired and determined that this was something we could impact. Parks and Recreation is uniquely positioned to be the change in this life expectancy inequity.”

As a result, the Parks Department began offering residents living in a low life expectancy zip code free access to specialized programming available at community centers, waiving the $30 monthly fee. The KCHD, in conjunction with researchers from University of Missouri-Kansas City, will study the

participants and measure how this access impacts their quality of life. This place-based initiative aims to bring change right to the heart of City neighborhoods.

Innovation in city government is often seen as big, flashy new initiatives. But the LifeX approach shows that sometimes innovation is simpler: working outside of the normal department walls to collaborate and make real change in Kansas City.

Not only does Rynard feel a personal connection to these issues but feels it directly aligns with the mission of local and national parks and recreation organizations.

“There could not be a more meaningful opportunity to work through all three lenses for a single purpose,” she said. “This is our chance to improve quality of life for all in our community. We do not just want to see everyone live longer, more fulfilling lives -- we want to see those communities who have experienced historical injustices healing and thriving.”

On Jan. 20, 2018, the LifeX crew filled a room at Gregg/Klice Community Center with more than 40 energetic residents eager to be more active, engaged, connected and happy. This pilot will help the Health and Parks and Recreation departments refine the program before opening up to other