For Healthier People, We Need Healthier Neighborhoods

From the article by Amy Gillman on The Huffington Post:

If you were to stop a dozen people on the street and ask them about the health of their communities, you would likely get wildly different answers. Some might come at it from a medical perspective, like access to doctors, hospitals or pharmacies. Others might think about pollution or water quality, or perhaps consider the neighborhood’s economic health and whether residents have good jobs.

Very few, I suspect, would recognize that all of these factors, and more, play a role. Despite mounting data showing the linkages between place and physical wellbeing, most of us don’t think of our personal health and our neighborhoods as being part of the same equation.

LISC’s own research touches on some of this, finding that significant community investments—from jobs to safety to housing to businesses—help low-income residents live better and make neighborhoods more resilient. But our random sampling might reasonably ask: do those kinds of investments really make people “healthier”?

In fact, they do. The well-being of our communities has a much greater influence on how long we live and how healthy we are than our health care system does. The latest release of the County Health Rankings offers some critical insight on the question. The Rankings—a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute— measures the health of nearly every county in the country based on more than 30 different factors.

I think the backstory of those numbers is telling. If you take a look at the model, you’ll see that clinical care measures account for just 20 percent of a county’s overall health. The other 80 percent? Social and economic measures like education and employment; the quality of the physical environment, like housing and air/water quality; and individual health and lifestyle considerations, like smoking and obesity.

Think about that for a minute. The vast majority of what affects our health is outside the doctor’s office. If we want a healthier population, we have to look at how and where we live.

It’s something we have come to recognize over the years through LISC’s Building Sustainable Communities strategy, which focuses simultaneously on a wide variety of community challenges in order to improve overall quality of life. The Rankings really drive home for me the value of this work – because our comprehensive community development efforts address nearly every available health factor that is measured. When viewed through the broader context of the Rankings, I think the conclusion is inescapable: investing in communities is not just a social, economic or a political calculation. It is a life and death choice that affects millions of people across the country.

Read the full article.