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Student Wins Award for Research on Impacts of Urban Development

October 17, 2018

Patrice Williams, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, has won a $10,000 Health Policy Research Scholars Dissertation Award to study how urban development may lead to sleep problems among Black populations.

It is estimated that 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders. People of color and low-income populations are disproportionately vulnerable. Recent studies have documented that Blacks have shorter sleep duration, reduced sleep efficiency, greater onset latency, and poorer overall sleep quality compared to Whites. Yet, according to Williams, there is a paucity of research in understanding the social and environmental factors that contribute to sleep problems among people of color.

The introduction of green spaces, such as parks and trails, into urban areas is often viewed as a promising way to decrease stress levels, improve sleep duration and overall physical activity, and provide a meeting place for residents to develop and maintain neighborhood social ties. On the other hand, redevelopment centered on new amenities such as green space, supermarkets, restaurants, and alternative modes of transportation can also inflate the desirability of these neighborhoods.

Making historically Black neighborhoods more attractive to affluent and middle-class residents drives up property values and housing costs and magnifies the fear of displacement among long-term residents. Williams' project aims to examine how the pressure of displacement associated with green redevelopment contributes to stress-related sleep disturbances among Blacks.

“It has always been my goal to select a dissertation topic that will have a social impact,” she said. “However, publicly available data sets do not provide information on how the pressure of displacement associated with urban redevelopment contributes to sleep disturbances among Blacks. This grant allows me to collect primary data to advance scientific knowledge on the health impacts of displacement that could progress towards evidence-based solutions.”

While continuing her doctoral program in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University, Williams has relocated to Atlanta in order to make a case study of the Beltline, a green redevelopment project that will result in the addition of 1,300 acres of new green space and parks within ten geographical subareas.

The funding Williams is receiving will be used to hire three full-time research assistants (RAs) from the Morehouse School of Medicine’s Master of Public Health program. The RAs will devote three months to this project, assisting with recruitment and survey administration for 150 participants and collecting objective and self-reported sleep data from a subset of 50 participants.

“The other benefit of this grant is that it also affords me the opportunity to mentor and financially support public health master’s students who are interested in studying how urban redevelopment and its processes directly effects their community’s health,” she said.

The award is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Health Policy Research Scholars (HPRS) program. Williams was one of 40 traditionally underrepresented students selected for the program’s first cohort in 2016. HPRS, led by George Washington University, is designed to bring together doctoral students from across the country to conduct research on building healthier and more equitable communities and to diversify the future generation of policy development leaders. Williams, a graduate of the FSU Master of Public Health program, was awarded a $120,000 grant by HPRS to support four years of Ph.D. studies in the planning department.

Drawing from her own experiences growing up in Sunrise, Fla., Williams was inspired to do her advanced degree work on gentrification and its effects on the health of disadvantaged populations.

“Gentrification does have a lot of positives, but it should be something that benefits all and not just the people who can afford to live in these new areas,” she said.